Philippine Peace Deal Suffers Another Blow

The Senate fails to pass a key bill, leaving the peace process hanging in the balance

More than a year after a peace agreement was inked between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels, a long-term resolution to one of Asia’s deadliest insurgencies continues to elude the two sides.

This week, the Philippine Senate failed to pass a key enabling law to the peace deal signed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) – by the June 11 deadline. The Philippine government, led by President Benigno Aquino, wanted the bill passed by then to ensure that a required referendum can be held before his administration’s term expires following elections in May 2016.

Leading Philippine lawmakers had initially said that this was possible. But the death of 44 Philippine commandos following a January raid on a rebel hideout undermined support for the bill, pushing back the ambitious timeline (See: “Philippine Peace Pact in Peril?”). With the Senate now on its summer break, the deadline has been moved to October.

But there is no guarantee that it will pass even then. Some lawmakers are still of the view that while the BBL is generally acceptable, there are specific provisions that will need to be revised or removed. But as the MILF’s vice chair for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar said last week, the fear is that further “dilutions” in the bill may alter it so far from the initial version reached by the government and the rebel group that it may have to reconsider it. On the Senate side, before the session closed, 12 senators signed a committee report concluding that the BBL remains unconstitutional. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr says he plans to file a new bill that is substantially different from the current version.

To their credit, the government and the MILF are still trying to push on with other elements of the peace process despite the stalled BBL. For instance, next week, Aquino will be guest of honor at an event where the MILF will turn over the first batch of rebel firearms and 145 members of the group’s armed wing will be decommissioned. But there is only so much both sides can do without a proper framework for the governance of the region.

In an open letter to the Philippine people last month, the MILF’s chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal wrote that he hoped the BBL would be passed because he did not think a similar opportunity for peace would ever present itself again in the next generation or two. Some dismissed Iqbal’s letter as fearmongering. But after 17 years of arduous negotiations across four administrations, and with the patience of radical younger rebels wearing thin, one can’t help but wonder what will happen should the Philippines squander its best chance for peace in decades.