Can Duterte Bring Peace to the Philippines?

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Can Duterte Bring Peace to the Philippines?

Forging peace in Mindanao is a far more challenging task than many appreciate.

Can Duterte Bring Peace to the Philippines?

Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) rebels take up position at a guard post at Camp Darapanan rebel base in Maguindanao province, in the southern Philippines (March 12, 2015).

Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Following the May 2016 election of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency, there was considerable fanfare that he would be able to deliver a lasting peace in Mindanao. Duterte’s heart is very clearly in the right place on the peace process. He knows the Bangsamoro have been marginalized and betrayed by the Manila elite in the past. But good intentions are not enough and the peace process is still in a state of limbo. Duterte’s strongman tendencies and sudden, irrational piques, which have formed the core of his policymaking process, do not bode particularly well.

The Parallel Peace Processes

To understand the peace process in Mindanao, one has to see it as two separate peace processes, run in parallel and often at odds with each other, between two groups over the same territory. In 1996, President Fidel Ramos signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which paved the way for the group’s founder Nur Misuari to become the governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

There were four problems. First, the ARMM was never as large as the MNLF anticipated because the majority of eligible territories did not vote for inclusion during the plebiscite. Second, Misuari proved to be a thoroughly corrupt and incompetent administrator. Third, the ARMM never had true fiscal or political autonomy. Finally, large numbers of MNLF combatants did not accept the peace process and defected to the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which immediately became a much larger and effective fighting force. By 1999, the MILF controlled vast swaths of Mindanao.

In 1999, President Joseph Estrada launched an offensive against the MILF, capturing the capital of their proto-state, and the MILF had to reorganize into nine separate and fairly autonomous base commands. In 2001 President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo implemented a unilateral cease fire and began back channel negotiations with the MILF. In 2003, on the eve of peace talks that were set to demarcate MILF camps, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched an offensive capturing key MILF camps, effectively opening the highway from Cotabato to Davao; the communications links broke the MILF’s hold on the civilian population. In 2007, negotiators for the MILF and Arroyo Administration concluded the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which would have enlarged the ARMM territories.

But the weakness of these agreements was that no one had really figured out how to reconcile them with the 1996 Accord with the MNLF, which by this point had broken into a number of distinct factions that claimed the mantle of leadership. Misuari was then under house arrest for his 2001 insurrection in protest of the government’s failure to implement the 1996 Accord. Another faction had a wait-and-see approach with the MILF peace process. But most of those in Sulu and Tawi Tawi, who remained loyal to Misuari, were calling for Tripartite Talks to be held under the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) auspices; i.e. they were pushing for the OIC to hold the Philippine government’s feet to the fire for its poor implementation of the 1996 Accord. The Philippine government stalled, telling the MNLF to wait for the outcome of the talks with the MILF. This of course upset the MNLF’s pride and inflated sense of Tausug chauvinism.

Yet, the Arroyo cabinet — and in particular the AFP — rejected the MOA-AD. Hardline members of the MILF went on a rampage, attacking Christian villages. But their offensive could not be sustained for more than a month; the protracted peace process had weakened the MILF’s military capabilities. In mid-2008, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled the MOA-AD as unconstitutional; the peace process was dead.

Several commanders, under the leadership of Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, broke away and founded the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While the BIFF had its own camps, the reality is that, tied by kinship, they largely still live amongst their former MILF comrades. The BIFF has continued to reject the peace process and has engaged in sporadic terrorist attacks. The MILF was able to rein in several other commanders, though it still engaged in occasional skirmishes. But for the most part, the leadership was still committed to a negotiated settlement.


The peace process restarted in 2011 with a secret meeting in Tokyo between President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad. In October 2012, the two sides concluded the Framework Agreement Bangsamoro (FAB). The FAB did several things, including establishing a timetable for disarmament, setting up a representative government for the Bangsamoro, allotting resources and fiscal revenue, demarcating the territory that would or could be included in the Bangsamoro, and outlining the process toward full implementation of the peace agreement.

In March 2014, the two sides signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), the peace agreement. Immediately the 15-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (eight appointed and chaired by the MILF, and seven appointed by the government), had to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the implementing legislation. This was concluded by April 2014, but the draft was rejected by President Aquino. Over 70 percent of the BBL was redrafted by Malacanang, ostensibly so that it would withstand constitutional scrutiny.  The peace process almost collapsed in mid-2014, and the impasse was broken after the MILF made significant concessions. The legislation was submitted to Congress in September 2014 with broad bipartisan support.

The BBL process had a very tight timeline for implementation. The BBL had to be passed by the end of the first quarter of 2015, so an interim government could be appointed, elections organized and a plebiscite held for inclusion into the new autonomous territory, the Bangsamoro. It was essential that all of this be completed by May 2016, as the Bangsamoro had to supplant the existing ARMM government.  They could not just abolish the existing ARMM government and framework and depose a democratically elected leader; so the existing ARMM governor and his administration had to not stand for re-election.

Though the FAB/CAB process was a bilateral agreement with the MILF, both parties always had their eyes on the MNLF. The greatest obstacle to peace came from intra-Moro rivalry. So the Bangsamoro was a very creative process that sought Tausug inclusion: By establishing a parliamentary form of government with regional constituencies, the MNLF would have a large seat at the table. Though the MILF dominates the Maguindanao and Maranao heartland, they have almost no organization in Sulu, Tawi Tawi, or even Zamboanga. Thus the Bangsamoro would provide for meaningful MNLF participation. Yet ego, Tausug chauvinism, and a fear that the MILF, which had set up a legal political political party, was going to outmaneuver it led to continued opposition by Misuari’s faction.

The Mamasapano Incident

In the midst of Congressional deliberations, the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police (PNP) launched a botched counterterrorism operation in MILF-controlled territory, bypassing the existing ceasefire and anti-terrorism/crime mechanisms. Some 44 SAF troops were killed in the day-long skirmish against MILF and BIFF troops. It was a tactical operation with strategic consequences.

The peace process was immediately stalled, as both houses of Congress, the PNP, AFP, Philippine Human Rights Commission, and the MILF all held hearings and issued their reports/findings. Leaked video of the Mamasapano incident, which showed MILF or BIFF combatants executing wounded SAF personnel, further escalated the situation.

The Mamasapano hearings became even more politicized coming at the start of an election year, with a number of leading senators grandstanding and using the incident to buttress their presidential campaigns. No politician stood to gain by being a friend of the Moro or the peace process. Just the opposite: candidates stood to gain by being a hardline nationalist and defender of state sovereignty.

In short, the congressional and government panels all found the MILF culpable for the incident, labeled a “massacre.” Most politicians began to call for the immediate disarming of the MILF as a precondition to the resumption of talks.

Even after the hearings on the peace process resumed, the BBL was never put to a vote; a quorum was never reached. Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. tabled his own alternative bill that gave the MILF even less than was offered in the 1996 Accord with the MNLF; it was a non-starter.

Nonetheless, the MILF continued to publicly state that they were committed to the peace process and would remain bound by the CAB; no one in the Philippine government or Congress seemed willing to take them at their word.

Enter Duterte

Rodrigo Duterte was the only presidential candidate who actually spoke about the plight of the Moro during the campaign and he was only one of two candidates to visit the MILF at their headquarters, where he pledged support. His victory was greeted with optimism by the MILF, and chairman Murad called him “a true son of Mindanao.”

But the optimism soon faded. Duterte’s immediate circle of advisers, mainly Christians from Mindanao and avowed opponents of the MILF peace process, alarmed the MILF. Duterte’s choice as the head of the Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process (OPAPP), Jes Duereza, had been in charge under the Arroyo Administration, and is deeply mistrusted by the MILF.

More important than personnel was Duterte’s policy. His team immediately set off alarm bells within the MILF by saying that there would be no need for the BBL because of the president’s goal to amend the constitution and implement a federal system if government. The MILF was apoplectic, calling it a “non-starter.” They argued that federalism would not address many of the core issues in the BBL, including transitional justice and acknowledgement of the Moro’s “ancestral domain.” The MILF demanded that the BBL be implemented, ahead of any move toward federalism, and they warned that without a BBL, they had no legal obligation to disarm.

The Duterte administration quickly backtracked, but their commitment to the passage of the BBL remains questionable. In short, doing so would require too much political capital, which Duterte needs for any constitutional amendment for federalism.

The Complexity of the Two Peace Processes

I have grave concerns that Duterte even comprehends the complexity of the peace process.  In July he still insisted there could be parallel tracks, rather than a unified peace process. On August 2 he stated that he could “give the BBL” to the MILF and “give Sulu to Misuari.”

On August 13, the two peace panels met in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. On September 2, the peace panels met to discuss specifically how they could get an implementing law passed in Congress.

Meanwhile the Nur Misuari wing of the MNLF publicly endorsed federalism as a solution. From the start of his presidency, Duterte had reached out to Misuari, an old friend. Duterte made clear that an arrest warrant for Misuari, for a 2013 revolt that led to the death of 200 people in Zamboanga, would not be acted on. Indeed, on November 2 a court suspended Misuari’s outstanding arrest warrant and he flew to Manila, where he met the president in Malacanang. Misuari endorsed the peace process in principle, and federalism specifically, as well as Duterte’s war on drugs, which had left some 4,700 people gunned down without any due process.

Duterte’s outreach to Misuari is justified by a need for inclusivity. That was the pet concern that his running mate Bongbong Marcos used to derail the BBL in the senate.

Through an Executive Order, signed on November 7, the BTC has been expanded to 21 –11 chosen by the MILF and 10 chosen by the government. The government’s side will include three seats for the MNLF faction headed by Muslimin Semma. Misuari has refused to participate in the BTC because it is “an MILF body.” Misuari reiterated his willingness to speak with the government, but not the MILF because, in his words, “These are all traitors; that’s why I can’t accept them.”

So at present, this is where Duterte’s government is on the peace process: It has created a second peace panel to renegotiate RA9054 to “enhance” autonomy under the ARMM with Nur Misuari. Meanwhile the GPH-MILF panels, with the enlarged BTC (with the MNLF Sema faction in it), will draft a new BBL that will ultimately establish the Bangsamoro, a new autonomous political entity that will replace the ARMM.

These parallel tracks are completely at odds with one another. Reaching out to Misuari and temporarily perhaps waiving his arrest warrant is likely to be a huge mistake. To say that the MNLF was not part of the Aquino administration’s negotiations with the MILF is nonsense. Mus Semma’s faction was very involved and held frequent consultations with the MILF, culminating in a unity pact. The Misuari faction had every opportunity to get involved, but didn’t because of ego, pride, and Tausug chauvinism. Reconciliation is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Misuari’s narcissism and delusions of grandeur should not be taken lightly. Every time he has not gotten what he wanted, he has launched a half-baked military action. He is a Tausug chauvinist and cannot accept the fact that the MILF is a much larger force, which is poised to negotiate a better deal for the Moros, and he loathes Mus Semma, who ousted him in 2001, describing him to me in 2007 as “a traitor who should be hung.” His public assertions that the spate of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf were actually the work of the Malaysian government is not going to garner the support of the government in Kuala Lumpur, which has been facilitating the peace process.

The enlarged BTC will have to redraft the BBL. And this is going to get very ugly. The government is likely going to say that what was originally submitted to Congress in the fall of 2014 will not get passed by Congress in 2016-17. They will demand major concessions from the MILF. It is hard to see how the MILF can swallow a further watering down of the BBL; they already made major concessions in the bill in mid-2014. For example, will the government demand a total surrender of arms as a precondition for passage, rather than a phased-in disarmament? What if Congress rejects the block grants that had been slated for the Bangsamoro?

And this will not be a fast process. The goal of the current BTC is to get a BBL passed and implemented in time for the 2019 elections; that is a long time for things to go wrong.

The most important thing is Murad’s ability to maintain command and control of his forces. While the leadership has repeatedly and publicly stated its continued commitment to the peace process, and emphasized that it remains bound by the CAB, I just am not convinced that Murad can maintain command and control. His greatest challenge is managing dashed expectations and hopes for a peace dividend. Without a peace process, there are no major development “arms to farms” projects, nor are there funds flowing for DDR projects, nor is there any legal requirement for the MILF to disarm. In mid-November the MILF leadership appealed to different base commands to stop the intermittent internecine war between them. Such squabbles seem likely to continue.

Deteriorating Security Situation

The stalled peace process with the MILF is taking place in the context of a rapidly deteriorating security situation across the southern Philippines. A slew of “Black Flag” groups have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), including Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP), Darul Islam Sabah, Ansar al-Shariah, Ma’rakah al-Ansar, and al-Harakatul al-Islamiyyah. In addition there are loosely organized cells of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) stretching from Zamboanga, through Basilan, Sulu and Tawi tawi.

These are all very small groups – really no more than cells – and individually none poses a serious threat.  The good news is that the feared ISIS “province” designation in the southern Philippines was never declared. But there are three reasons for concern: First, there have been attempts by ISIS to get these cells to coalesce under a unified leadership. ISIS declared the Abu Sayyaf’s Isnilon Hapilon as “Sheikh Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini.” This is the first time that other Southeast Asian militants have accepted the leadership of a Filipino.

Second, while there are ISIS cells across Malaysia and Indonesia, with the defeat of the Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT) in Indonesia, none control territory; only the groups in the southern Philippines do, which gives them added influence. That rear base area to train and regroup is essential. The ISIS attack in Jakarta in January 2016 demonstrated how much more training and professionalism ISIS cells actually need.

Third, most of these groups operate within territory that the MILF control, or could control, but until there is a durable peace process, they really have no incentive to be a responsible stakeholder and to police the territory. Just the opposite — it makes a degree of strategic sense to maintain ties to these groups as a force multiplier should the peace process completely break down. For example, Abdullah Macapagar’s unprecedented interview with French TV, in which he made clear that several Black Flag groups were operating in his territory, sent a very clear message to both the Philippine government and the MILF leadership. The presence of these groups in MILF territory gives them a certain leverage at the negotiating table, but poses two risks: First, it will be fodder for Congressional opponents of the BBL. Second, giving the Black Flag groups the time and space to grow makes them more viable, and harder to stamp out.

The sad thing is that in the early to late 2000s regional governments saw Mindanao as a threat not just to Philippine security, but to regional security. That perception changed under Aquino as peace and stability took root with the success of the MILF peace process, making them responsible stakeholders. That is not true today. Southeast Asian governments once again look to the southern Philippines as a font of regional instability. One only has to look at the Indonesian and Malaysian responses, including demands for the right of hot pursuit, to the spate of maritime kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf that have imperiled regional trade.

Stagnating Capabilities of the PNP and AFP

The devolving security situation in the southern Philippines is compounded by the stagnating capabilities of the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines, who are not up to the growing challenges. Duterte’s call for the end of the U.S. Special Forces in Zamboanga or the end of military exercises, though probably not to be acted on, does not help. The 4,700 extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s war on drugs have already led U.S. Congress to put a hold on the sale of new assault rifles for the PNP, and cuts in training programs. The U.S. Special Operations contingent is down to just over 100 personnel and they are there largely in an intelligence function, with far less training than in the past. And most importantly, there is much less oversight.

But AFP is riddled with other structural problems, including the rapid turnover of leadership in what are often under one year tenures. The AFP has constantly broken up U.S. trained units. Under Duterte, and in the name of the war on drugs, there is less accountability for security forces than at any time since the Marcos era. There is total impunity, which is exactly what exacerbated the insurgencies in the past. Finally, the AFP remains riddled with endemic corruption.

An estimated $7.3 million was paid to the Abu Sayyaf in ransoms in the past 16 months to free foreign and local hostages. While that has allowed the Abu Sayyaf to recruit and rearm, that money is not theirs alone. It is shared with the community, including the security forces, who continue to profit from the ASG’s existence, and have no incentive to ever deal with what is a small and localized threat, a poorly-led gang of thugs with no ideology or provision of social services.

Peace is imperative, both for Philippine and regional security, but at present, Duterte’s shoot from the hip approach pales in comparison with the holistic negotiating strategy of the Aquino administration. And his gambit toward his old friend Misuari seems more like a scheme by those who are out to undermine the MILF peace process. And given Duterte’s closeness to the Marcos clan, in general, and to his former running mate Bongbong, in particular, this may be exactly what is happening, despite his stated commitment to peace.

Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security and politics. The views are his personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the National War College or Department of Defense.