For the first time in years, a good news story has come out of the southern Philippines. Earlier today the largest Muslim insurgent organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), signed a deal with President Benigno Aquino’s government. The “framework agreement” has been hailed as creating a roadmap to end the decades-long war waged by Muslim insurgents.
But it potentially could do even more. If successful – a very big if — it will overhaul a dysfunctional system of governance that empowers despotic warlords and permits criminals and extremists to wreak havoc in the Philippines and beyond. It is not only the best chance for peace with the MILF, but also the first time the government has agreed to give genuine autonomy an opportunity to work.
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The island of Mindanao and adjacent Sulu archipelago have gained notoriety for dramatic kidnappings, hosting extremists from regional terror networks, and a gruesome massacre in 2009 that killed 58 people. The 12,000-strong MILF has a ceasefire agreement with the government that has held for fifteen years despite intermittent clashes.
The insurgency waged by the MILF is just one source of violence. Skeptics say that the framework agreement won’t solve all the problems. That’s true, but short-sighted. No one should gauge its success or failure on whether kidnappings decline in the months ahead. What is envisioned will take years to achieve.
Autonomy done wrong
Abuse of power, violence and crime are intrinsic to the politics of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. An earlier attempt to solve the problem of Muslim separatism is partly to blame. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, set up in the late 1980s, has been an unmitigated disaster. Venal and corrupt, it has no power over the warlords-cum-politicians who, in the past, Manila chose to pit against the MILF.
This failed autonomous region, which exists to this day, has obstructed the search for a political solution to the Muslim insurgency. A previous deal with the MILF’s forerunner, the Moro National Liberation Front, foundered because it was circumscribed by the existing autonomy set-up.
Autonomy done right
The Aquino government had two options. One was to scrub the books and purge the ranks of the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to see if it could work better; a deal with the MILF would secure its participation in this process. The other option was to accede to the rebels’ demand to replace the current political structure entirely.
Until a few months ago, it was still not clear which way the Aquino government was leaning. But the MILF has consistently rejected anything that resembled the status quo. The first option was therefore impossible because the MILF would not budge. It took a while for the government’s negotiators to convince the president that he would have to be bold and go for the second option.
Why the agreement matters
The significance of the framework agreement is clear: the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will be dissolved and replaced by a new entity to be called “the Bangsamoro”.
Other provisions describe a fiscally autonomous government which could wield real power over the fiefdoms of warlords and lawless areas. The final pages envisage a Bangsamoro police force, the reduction and control of firearms, and dismantling private armies. It is too soon to tell whether any of this will happen. The parties are still negotiating a series of annexes on tough issues like natural resources and policing, and Congress will eventually need to pass a law to create the new entity. But at least the scaffolding is there.
Gun violence, poor policing and warlord politics are hardly unique to the southern Philippines. President Aquino, for all his reformist rhetoric and credentials, has so far done little to address these problems elsewhere. The irony is that his government has now handed the southern Philippines an opportunity to begin to tackle them seriously. In doing so, he is making clear that he trusts the MILF to lead the Bangsamoro people in deciding how to solve these problems on their own terms. There’s no guarantee this will work, but ambition of the Aquino government and the MILF should be applauded.
In 2008, a similarly sweeping text was set to be signed only to fall apart when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and MILF commanders attacked civilians. This time, the agreement might work. Spoilers appear to have been appeased, the international community is engaged and the next steps are clearer. Yet there are many hurdles to cross before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016, the deadline for implementation.
But today, both sides should bask in the glow of a remarkable document worthy of their courage and mutual trust in each other.
Bryony Lau is a Southeast Asia senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.