OPINION: Duterte and the Mindanao Peace Process

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Aug 18 2016 04:03 AM

Several weeks ago, President Rodrigo Duterte gave his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) with his usual flair of roughness, a stern warning to drug lords and criminals, and a comical eloquence that will probably make him one of the country's most memorable presidents. 
Filipinos were glued to their television sets as history unfolded. For the first time, militant activists were allowed to go near the Batasang Pambansa. After delivering his SONA, the president held a meeting with the activists who were out in the streets for the annual SONA mobilization, together with the leaders of the lumad contingent who came all the way from Mindanao. 
Like everyone else in Cotabato City, I waited for anything the president will say on Mindanao, especially a reference to an expected resumption of whatever that was left —hopes, frustrations, and exhaustion—from the previous Aquino administration’s attempt at a lasting and hopefully sustained peace in Mindanao of which the Bangsamoro Basic Law was a crucial part but was rejected by Congress .
Like the presidents who came before him, Duterte talked about pressing issues in Mindanao such as the peace talks and the Bangsamoro, along with prospects in moving forward. But unlike former presidents, Duterte uttered the narratives of the south as a Mindanaon who is privy to how the people suffered and fought to defend the Bangsamoro struggle and its cause. He is, after all, the first president from Mindanao. 
But beyond the fanfare and the popularity of Duterte is the question of his administration’s position with regard to finding peace in the south, especially for the Bangsamoro people. One risks generalizing in saying that since Duterte is from Mindanao, he will therefore represent the cause of the various stakeholders within the region. 
The danger will always lie in the possibility of homogenizing the various voices in Mindanao and Sulu, thinking that Duterte and his administration can provide an accurate representation of these struggles. Within the first year of his administration or, if possible, the first six months of his presidency, there is a need to locate his government’s position and how to best move forward in bringing all the parties involved back to the peace talks, especially that bringing peace to communities will always be an immediate concern.
The peace process between the government and the Moro freedom fighters has had a long history of successes and failures, with both parties trudging along on a road paved with good intentions. One must go back to the history of these negotiations to understand and try to locate Duterte and his administration’s strategies in moving forward with Mindanao. 
The Moro struggle for self-determination, armed or otherwise, started from a call of a complete independence from the Philippines. This cause was carried then by the Moro National Liberation Front with Nur Misuari as the face of the struggle. The resistance of the MNLF combatants against the military resulted in bloody encounters. 
When President Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under Martial Law, the conflict heightened and the armed conflicts resulted in casualties among non-combatants as well. Things took a turn for the worse as Marcos used para-military folk organizations such as the Ilaga as part of his government’s counter-insurgency measures.
In 1976, the MNLF and the government finally faced each other on the negotiating table, laying down their arms to talk about moving forward and stopping the bloodshed. Libya, then under Muammar Gaddafi, brokered the peace talks. 
The negotiation between the Marcos government and the Moro National Liberation Front resulted in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, with the government and the MNLF deciding to create an autonomous government for the Moros, a judicial system based on Sharia Law, and the observance of ceasefire between the two factions. This was the first document that carried the aspirations of both parties to bring peace to Mindanao. One thing that should be highlighted in this agreement was how the MNLF shifted the goal of the Moro struggle from independence to autonomy. 
The 1976 Tripoli Agreement detailed 13 provinces to be included in the autonomy. However in 1977, with the country still under Martial Law and Marcos able to decide on all the affairs of the country without check and balance, a proclamation reducing the number of provinces from 13 to three was issued by Marcos and was subjected to a plebiscite. Misuari, as a response, wanted to return then to the armed struggle. 
Salamat Hashim, Misuari’s vice chairman, broke away from the MNLF in 1977 and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or the MILF. 
When Marcos was ousted, the MNLF sat down with then President Corazon Aquino. The Aquino government entertained the proposal of MNLF to include, this time as a deviation from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, 23 provinces in the autonomy but it will be subjected to a ‘democratic process’. If the government conducted a plebiscite during that time, the MNLF was bound to lose most of the provinces. 
The MNLF was unsuccessful in blocking the provisions inserted in the 1987 Constitution which enabled the creation of an autonomous region through a constitutionally guaranteed plebiscite. 
The plebiscite was then conducted in 1989, and the original 13 provinces covered in 1976 Tripoli Agreement were reduced into four. 
It was during the administration of President Fidel Ramos that the 1996 Final Peace Agreement was signed together with Nur Misuari. It was a brave move for Ramos as he tried to resolve the conflict in Mindanao with other rebel groups, while he primed the country to become a ‘tiger economy’ in Southeast Asia. 
Misuari became the governor of ARMM to facilitate the transition to a "truly" autonomous region compliant with the 1996 agreement and to supervise the implementation of the peace pact. However, while the negotiation between the MNLF and the government has been sealed by the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, the MILF then was waging an armed struggle against the government as they worked on the possibility of complete independence instead of autonomy. 
It was during the time of President Joseph Estrada when the conflict escalated between the MILF and the government. Estrada declared an ‘all-out war’ with the MILF in 2000, a war that ended with thousands of people displaced and hundreds killed. Estrada’s reckless approach created a deep wound among stakeholders, from government officials to leaders of the Moro freedom fighters, down to the people in the communities. 
It was former President Gloria Arroyo who revived the peace talks between the two parties. During her term, which covered the years 2001 to 2010, Marawi City and Basilan (except Isabela City) were included in the ARMM through a plebiscite. However, the Arroyo administration was rocked by intermittent tension and conflict between forces on the ground as the government vowed to be a good partner of the US on its "War on Terror," a post-9/11 intervention to address the problems of international terrorism.
The talks between the Arroyo administration and the MILF led to the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which was agreed upon in mid July 2008. Three weeks later on August 4, however, the Supreme Court ruled the proposed agreement as unconstitutional. 
In the said ruling, the Supreme Court decided that the Executive Branch has no constitutional right to engage in an agreement that entails a creation of state within a state unless the constitution is amended; only Congress does. It was then hinted that the Arroyo administration’s goal really was a constitutional change before her term ends. The peace process was in a deadlock.
The collapse of the talks following the ruling on the MOA-AD led to attacks by rebel groups against communities in Central Mindanao. Those attacks resulted in the death of over 300 innocent civilians and displaced over half a million residents. 
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which refused to negotiate with the government, emerged as a breakaway group from the MILF in 2008. The more radical BIFF was allegedly behind most of the violent incidents reported in Central Mindanao after the Supreme Court’s rejection of the MOA-AD.
Security instability remained a big problem in 2009. Bombings jolted the cities of Cotabato in Maguindanao and Iligan in Lanao del Norte as well as in Jolo, Sulu resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. The economy of Central Mindanao was almost at a standstill even as trade and commerce in nearby regions slowed down.
When President Noynoy Aquino’s administration began in 2010, fulfilling the promise of a lasting peace in Mindanao became a possibility again. Aquino engaged the MILF and agreed to negotiate towards a real autonomy for the Bangsamoro people. Both parties agreed on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in October 2012 which outlined the creation of a new entity that will replace the current ARMM. 
The talks between the two parties culminated in the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. However, as popularity of the Aquino administration dwindled following the Mamasapano encounter, public opinion turned sour and took on a suspicious tone regarding the peace process. Members of congress revised the proposed law to the point that it became unrecognizable, and eventually failed to pass the legislation to the dismay of those who hoped that the Aquino administration will leave a legacy of lasting peace in Mindanao. 
With this complicated history of negotiations between two or several parties as a background, we can see the opportunities and pitfalls that await Duterte as he decides how the government will resume the peace process.
Just this week, both the government and MILF panels have agreed to expand the membership of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the body tasked to come up with a draft legislation for the Bangsamoro.
What is hoped is that this body will work with the awareness that the process needs to be more inclusive.
As the peace talks resume, the question remains: will this administration continue pursuing the methods of those who came before him, or will he reinvent the wheel as someone who is closer to the plight of Mindanaoans?
However he chooses to deal with us, it is our constant vigilance and awareness of history that will make our engagement with the new administration go beyond the same old good intentions.

Amir Mawallil is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals.


Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.