A peace deal struck between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) adds another tick to President Begnino Aquino’s list of achievements since coming to office almost two-and-a-half years ago. Since conflict first erupted in the mid-1970s, the quest for a Bangsamoro homeland has claimed more than 120,000 lives.
However, whether this latest effort to find peace and enduring stability for the people of Mindanao will win the necessary support from the Christians and institutions that overwhelmingly run the rest of the country remains to be seen.
Establishing a homeland is critical in this effort. An Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established in 1996 after years of negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). But not all agreed on the terms, the rebels splintered and the MILF fought on for a better deal.
Importantly Aquino announced the ARMM would be replaced by a new autonomous Bangsamoro identity. A similar deal was struck by Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2008.
At that time skeptics warned that the deal – also announced with much fanfare — would be struck down amid the myriad of political and legal processes it had to pass before becoming law. The sticking point was the establishment of an autonomous homeland.
Arroyo had always made it her business to pay close attention to the appointment of Supreme Court judges. Critics have argued those judges have provided the former leader with buffer against widely expected corruption charges brought on by the election of Aquino.
That bench also struck down as unconstitutional the last peace agreement reached with the MILF in 2008. Bloody clashes followed the court’s ruling which forced about 400,000 people to flee their homes and led many to speculate that the Arroyo government always intended for the agreement to fail, knowing full-well that the courts would knock back a deal she never liked in the first place.
Also in the fray is Malaysia, which insists on playing a behind the scenes role in negotiations amid diplomatic claims that Kuala Lumpur sees Mindanao as a natural extension of their Islamic way of life, and a geographic addition to its East Malaysia states on the nearby island of Borneo, despite Sabah and Sarawak being traditionally Christian. The Philippines has a long standing claim to Sabah.
Estimates vary, but there are hundreds of thousands of Filipino Muslim refugees living in water villages dotted around the northern tip of Borneo. Some are third generation and have little concept of life back in The Philippines. Like it or not, the prospect of them going home is now quite real.
That is of course if the passage of the latest agreement can navigate the inevitable political twists and turns through the House of Representatives, the Senate, the courts and possibly a referendum before finding final acceptance where it really matters, among the people of Mindanao.