Those advocating a full-scale war against the MILF probably imagine that two months of pounding MILF lairs with artillery will see the end of the rebels. To them who are advancing this folly, better think in terms of years, or even decades of civil war. Think hard if this war is something the government can win decisively given its scarce resources to wage war and attend to war’s humanitarian impact, the resilient nature of unconventional warfare, and the Moro fighters’ fierce sense of righteousness sourced from their faith and resentment of the Filipino government. Worse, these war advocates should brace themselves for the spectacle of communal warfare where the fighting takes place among groups of people rather than confined between the armies of the state and its challenger – because that is is exactly what the plan to arm of 13,000 militias will lead to.
To the next president, expect to inherit this war. Expect to be faced with the same need to find a political solution that will address the demands for power-sharing. Make sure you have a better plan. The Moro rebellion in Mindanao cannot be simply nipped and tucked like in cosmetic surgery. If not the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, some other corrective power-sharing arrangement that would give Moros a wider berth for governance would have to be crafted because, to paraphrase Manuel Quezon, Moro nationalists would prefer a government run like hell by Moros than forever suffer the discrimination of Filipinos.
The crafting of power-sharing arrangements is a challenge faced by many states mired in armed, contentious politics.
I confirmed this in my recent trip to Norway for a small workshop attended by a Nepalese, a Sri Lankan, and myself from the Philippines. Two Norwegian scholars from the Norwegian Institute of Regional and Urban Planning served as the host of this meeting to develop a research design that will look at the effects of decentralization on identity-based conflicts in the three Asian countries.
Compared to Nepal, Sri Lanka’s unsolved problem of accommodation of Tamil ethno-nationalists comes closer to the problem we have been finger pointing and dropping bombs for in the last three weeks since the aborted signing of the MOA.
Like the Moros in Mindanao who were not subjugated by Spain and then administered separately by the Americans, the Tamils in the north and east of the island then called Ceylon were not put under full administrative control of the Dutch and the British until 1833. Consequently, the Sinhalese south, where colonial laws operated more comprehensively, evolved into a different polity. When the British withdrew in 1948, the Tamils in the northern and eastern provinces saw themselves as a distinct entity that has been subordinated to the political center located in the Sinhalese South. But because the British-installed constitution operated on the principle of relative rather than absolute majority and was neither unitary nor federal, Tamil political parties managed to compete and participate in parliamentary politics.
Succeeding republican constitutions, however, alienated the Tamils from national politics. In 1972, constitutional reforms installed a unitary system, gave Buddhism primacy, and made Sinhalese the national language. The next constitution in 1977 further entrenched majortiarian principles and centralized powers in the president. Although language and education rights were given the Tamil, the accumulated resentment by the 1970s was ripe for the rise of Tamil youth militancy. Eventually, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) became the dominant Tamil political force.
In response to growing Tamil disaffection, the 1987 Provincial Councils Act devolved some powers to the provinces. The Tamil language was given official status.
In the latest round of talks that began in 2002, the LTTE dropped tis demand for independence in favor of a federalist arrangement. But its proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority was roundly rejected by the government and the Sinhalese majority. The Sinhalese and the (Tamil) Muslims in the east, who jointly comprise about two-third of the population in the eastern province, also opposed the joint government-LTTE post-tsunami management structure put up to handle the tsunami relief fund. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
By 2005, the three-year old ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE was over. Since then, territory and displaced people have move back and forth between government and LTTE control. For how long more and at what cost to human lives and resources – no one knows.
Sri Lankan political elites meanwhile continue to be divided on the solution, with those allied with populist Sinhalese nationalist sentiments not keen to devolve anything to the LTTE and avidly supporting war efforts to weaken LTTE leverage. Recent military successes have given confidence to this tack, for now. But because of excessive use of force and killings in waging their war of annihilation, the Sinhalese-led Sri Lankan government is not any closer to winning the collective affection of the Tamils.
Since each country is different, we are not drawing any exact parallelism between the two conflicts and aborted peace processes.
What is evident in the two cases is that the solution will not be attained conclusively in the battlefield. Whatever the military balance, the more permanent solution is still in the political realm. Power-sharing arrangements and more inclusive institutions and processes would have to be put in place. This is because, as one foreign scholar put it, “Self-determination is a political demand, it requires a political solution.”
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