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Manila’s Focus on External Defense Needs Peace in Mindanao

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Manila’s Focus on External Defense Needs Peace in Mindanao

Despite its increasing focus on external threats, the Philippine government can’t afford to take the Bangsamoro peace process for granted.

Manila’s Focus on External Defense Needs Peace in Mindanao

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, center, claps as Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, left, shakes hands with Senate President Franklin Drilon, right, as he hands over the Draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

As President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met with Joe Biden in Washington last week to boost economic ties and bilateral defense cooperation, the Philippine military launched airstrikes and mortar attacks on marshy militant hideouts in the autonomous Bangsamoro region, on the country’s southernmost island of Mindanao. At a time when Manila, increasingly caught up in the geopolitical realities of the U.S.-China rivalry, is shifting its attention to external defense, continued military operations provide a stark reminder that the peace process in Bangsamoro should not be taken for granted.

The militants targeted by recent security operations were not part of the 2014 Peace Agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Moro rebel movement in Mindanao. However, they are part of a mosaic of actors, among them political strongmen, militants, private militias, and frustrated MILF ex-combatants, that are contributing to violence in the region, threatening the success of the peace process. Although the Philippines faces several internal challenges, including Asia’s oldest communist insurgency and political violence, Mindanao remains at the forefront of the country’s security concerns.

Spread across six provinces, two cities and one special administrative area, Bangsamoro is home to more than 4.5 million people of different ethnolinguistic and religious communities, political clans, and insurgent groups, as well as many ex-rebels. Its road to peace has been a challenging one. The landmark 2014 peace accord, which drew inspiration from the peace processes in Northern Ireland and Aceh, put an end to the decades-long war between the Philippine government and Moro armed rebels that had claimed around 120,000 lives. The agreement led to the creation of an autonomous region in 2019, where the ex-rebels currently run the regional administration. But while the transition is largely on track, there are still significant pitfalls on the path to durable peace. And with only two years to go until the 2025 parliamentary elections that will mark the end of the region’s transition to full autonomy, time is starting to run short.

With fighting regularly displacing entire communities, particularly in central Mindanao, some Bangsamoro people say they are reminded more and more of the violence that characterized the region in past decades. In addition, there is a general perception of lawlessness, which is rooted in almost daily shootings and violence as MILF commanders, local politicians, and other armed men feud over status, land and power. Politics remain at best complicated and at worst deadly as tensions between the MILF and their political rivals grow in the run-up to local elections. Thankfully, other areas of the Bangsamoro are relatively peaceful, particularly with the slow decline of the once notorious criminal-militant Abu Sayyaf network contributing to more regional stability in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas. But the promise of peace has not reached the entire region and the national armed forces remain prominently deployed in Mindanao.

Overall, the formal peace process has made undeniable progress, particularly after the inauguration of the interim Bangsamoro government, led by the MILF, in 2019. In its first years, the transition authority also built hospitals, village halls, and passed four of the seven legislative codes required as part of the transition period. The COVID-19 pandemic created unexpected hurdles, as the ex-rebels were forced to quickly shift gear to emergency response, delaying their work in setting up the new region’s institutions.

Local elections in May 2022 then threw the MILF’s attention off-course, with the movement’s selection of candidates resulting in competition and clashes with local dynasts who control the region’s villages and towns; not surprisingly, the ex-rebels did not do very well. As a result of these delays, key laws related to local governance, revenue generation, and the indigenous people, remain incomplete.

On the Philippine government’s side, commitments made as part of the “normalization process,” as the broader war-to-peace transition in the region is called, have proven difficult to implement. The rehabilitation of rebel camps, efforts to disarm militias in the region, the granting of amnesty for ex-combatants, and the redeployment of the military out of the region, are all behind schedule. More than half of the MILF fighters have been decommissioned, but the delay in delivering economic benefits for MILF ex-combatants is also a major concern as it could increase the risk that the MILF guerrillas stick to their guns and drag out the demobilization process.

All these challenges might be echoes of the past, attesting to the perennial truth that things often get worse before getting better. But there are clear and present risks for the stability of the Bangsamoro. For the peace process to succeed, both Manila and the regional authorities need to work together more closely. The MILF-led interim government needs to do more to ensure local peace and inclusion. Concretely, this requires disciplining MILF commanders who engage in violence, reaching out to the region’s powerful political clans, and boosting conflict resolution efforts.

The national government also needs to do its part and deliver on vital promises stipulated in the agreement, in particular the disarmament of private militias and the delivery of socioeconomic packages to ex-combatants. International supporters of the peace process, including donors, should also continue to pay close attention to Mindanao. To make a lasting contribution, they should identify key gaps in funding of development and peace-building projects meant to deliver peace dividends to the Bangsamoro people and fill them. More coordination and alignment of donor priorities, based on clear-cut needs analysis, would help speed up the process.

Meeting the promises of the Bangsamoro peace process is vital not just for the Philippines, but also for the wider region. In Southeast Asia, as well as in other parts of the world where resurgent conflict is on the rise, the Bangsamoro agreement set a positive example of a negotiated settlement to a decades-old conflict, with prospects for lasting stability. As much as shoring up Philippine defense is a priority, President Marcos should also ensure that the widely heralded peace process does not slip through his grip – both for those that will benefit from it, and those who stand to emulate it.

This article is adapted from the International Crisis Group’s recent report, “Making Peace Stick in the Bangsamoro.”