This year on July 26, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, better known by its previous name the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The move was welcomed by many, including the United Nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom as well as the European Union. Countries and organizations with historical ties to peace efforts in the Moro conflict — such as the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Malaysia, and Japan, among others — also inundated the Duterte government with congratulatory messages.
Drawn up based on the historic 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed between then-President Benigno Aquino III’s government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the BBL is expected to address some of the principal grievances that underlie the decades-long conflict in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao. Among the key features of the law is the replacement of the current autonomous region — the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM — with a new autonomous region, namely the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
The BARMM is expected to encompass more than the core territories of ARMM, as at least 10 provinces outside the current autonomous region may opt to join BARMM (subject to plebiscites scheduled later this year). Furthermore, under Article 5 of the law, the Bangsamoro government (to be created with the assistance from the central government), will have greater autonomy over matters such as budgeting, administration of justice, resources and revenues, civil services, culture and language, customary laws, indigenous people’s rights, ancestral domain, and natural resources.
While the signing of the BBL undoubtedly marked yet another historical breakthrough that indeed should be applauded, one might ask why, given the known history of failed peace settlements, would the parties want to commit this time around? What are their incentives to credibly commit to the CAB and the BBL? Various factors can be identified but one is critically important for the parties involved, particularly the Philippine government — the high cost of noncommitment due, among other reasons, to the continual evolution of and the changing relations amongst the Moro conflict actors.
The Moro conflict involves a dynamic and complex web of actors that continuously evolves and changes overtime. The two key Moro separatist groups are the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who had previously been the key negotiating partner in all earlier peace settlements from the 1970s through 1990s, and its splinter group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF (with whom the Philippine government signed the CAB and the ensuing development of BBL).
While the differences and disagreements between the MNLF and MILF still need to be ironed out, both groups are relatively on board with the BBL and what it promises to deliver. Moreover, the MNLF leader Nur Misuari, although frozen out of the CAB and the BBL process due to his alleged involvement in 2013 Zamboanga crisis, has also vowed to work for peace after Duterte asked the court to suspend all the arrest warrants against him. While it remains to be seen how these two rival groups will reconcile their differences and collaborate with the Manila government to implement the BBL, their relative willingness to work for peace presents a critical momentum not found in the earlier settlements, where one of the groups always remained outside and/or excluded from the peace process.
Equally important is the need to avoid conflict recidivism. Although the Moro conflict as known today only became organized in 1960s, the Moro resistance against foreign powers and occupations dates as far back as the 16th century — first against the Spaniards and later against the United States. The Moro conflict is therefore one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts. Today, both the MNLF and MILF have control over various resources and hence the capacity to prolong the conflict if the government fails to credibly commit to the promises made in the BBL. For example, the MILF, which sees the BBL as the last chance for peace in Mindanao region, remains the biggest Moro separatist group in the Philippines with reportedly 12,000 fighters. These separatist fighters and their resources are paramount to the planned demobilization and disarmament provided in the BBL. For the parties to disarm and demobilize and therefore avoid conflict recidivism, the Philippine government will need to credibly commit to provisions of the CAB and the BBL.
Furthermore, the troubled Mindanao region has become fertile ground for the emergence of violent extremist pro-Islamic State (ISIS) groups, thus further muddling the peace efforts in the region. Cooperation from the MILF and the MNLF is, therefore, critical to the Philippines’ fight against extremist militant groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and the petty-criminal-turned-terrorist Maute Group. These three groups, along with groups and fighters from other countries, were the key players in last year’s Battle of Marawi, which left more than a thousand dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the city of Marawi in ruins.
The ASG and BIFF are breakaway groups from the MNLF and the MILF, respectively. These historical links have the potential to benefit the government’s efforts to fight extremism. Perhaps more importantly, a satisfactory peace deal will help prevent disgruntled members of the MNLF and the MILF from joining the jihadist groups. A report by International Crisis Group (ICG) points to the recruitment of MILF forces by the Maute brothers. Thus, by credibly committing to successfully implement the BBL, provided that both separatist groups reconcile their differences, the Philippine government not only will have the potential to curtail the further spread and influence of jihadism from the pro-ISIS groups, but also can prevent further splintering of the separatist groups into various factions, making the conflict even more difficult to address.
Finally, on the question of growing jihadist groups, both the MNLF and MILF have indicated their commitment to fight the radical groups by condemning their actions. The MILF, in fact, even issued a Shariah ruling (fatwa) on the need to fight violent extremism against the extremist jihadist groups. Similarly, MNLF leader Nur Misuari not only promised to work for peace but also offered to help the government during the Marawi Battle last year by keeping thousands of his soldiers on standby should they be needed to fight against the pro-ISIS groups.
It is evident that the dynamic relations amongst the conflict actors and the momentum they present are particularly ripe today, and should, therefore, be carefully and timely seized to bring some measures of peace to the troubled south. In conclusion, although there are mixed opinions among the Filipinos with 62 percent of Mindanao residents opposed to the BBL, the relative willingness of both the MILF and MNLF to work with the government on the peace process is an imperative milestone achievement that should be nurtured and built upon. Without support from either (or both) of the separatist groups, especially if the government proves unable to credibly commit to the BBL, the peace and stability that Filipinos and the world wish to see in Mindanao will remain elusive with BARMM likely facing similar fate as the ARMM — a failed experiment.
Fausto Belo Ximenes is an independent researcher and a recent graduate of the Blavatnik School of Government (BSG), University of Oxford. Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the BSG and the University of Oxford.