Obstacles to peace in Mindanao - Eugene Martin and Astrid Tuminez

Eugene Martin and Astrid Tumi

Posted at Aug 05 2008 12:50 PM | Updated as of Aug 05 2008 10:33 PM

Resolving the conflict in Mindanao is likely to be an extended undertaking, even with the best of intentions from all parties. Many challenges confront the current peace process.

On the government side, the political will needed to carry the process through in the face of opposition from Christian groups and landowners has been insufficient. Although the president included peace in Mindanao as one of her top ten agenda items when she was elected in 2004, she has expended only minimal political capital to move the process forward.

This stands in stark contrast, for example, to the visible commitment and direct involvement of former President Fidel V. Ramos, whose administration conducted talks that led to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front. The three branches of government also lack consensus on the outlines of a deal that may be offered to the Moros.

As with past agreements, a serious risk exists that the national legislature could scuttle any agreement signed by the government in the implementation phase. The Supreme Court might also declare unconstitutional any deal on ancestral domain that grants Moros significant political authority and control over natural resources. A constitutional amendment might be required to protect a GRP-MILF agreement, but the prospects of this happening appear dim.

Multiple changes in the composition of the GRP negotiating team—including the mid-2007 resignation of Chairman Silvestre Afable, who had long been trusted and respected by his MILF counterparts—also pose a challenge. Although GRP negotiators are well informed, creative, and well intentioned, they are in many ways unable to influence those at the center of political power and public opinion.

At the technical level, GRP representatives have proposed progressive and enlightened solutions, including genuine measures for Moro self-determination within a united Philippines, but these may never garner the necessary political or public support.  Occasionally, there were reports that the GRP negotiating team’s recommendations on policy, negotiating strategies, and tactics were discarded, weakened, or undercut by cabinet members. This lowered the GRP team’s morale and effectiveness.

GMA’s liabilities

Even the panel’s bold proposal in November 2006 to offer self-determination to the Moros was subsequently limited by the government’s unwillingness to compromise on the territorial extent of the prospective Bangsamoro homeland. At one point, the Malaysians threatened to withdraw their involvement in the peace negotiations because they felt that the GRP negotiating team came to the table with an insufficient political mandate at a critical time in ancestral domain negotiations.

The ability and the intent of President Macapagal-Arroyo, whose term expires in 2010, to press the peace process to settlement are also uncertain. Despite strong public statements on peace, she has been unable to unite her administration or create a network of key interagency allies to stand behind a focused, determined policy of accommodation with the Moros.

Further, because of her political liabilities, she has not obtained a critical mass of support from the military, the economic elites, and the larger public. Her flexibility to make decisions that work against the entrenched, parochial interests of some individuals and groups may be limited. Scandals have buffeted her family, and she has spent much of her energy fending off impeachment attempts.

If she makes serious compromises with the MILF or forces significant change in the political and economic dominance of Christian migrants over land, resources, and political power in Mindanao, she could rouse a wave of opposition that might endanger her presidency.

This suggests that the president has tremendous hurdles to overcome in bringing about an effective peace agreement during her tenure. Nonetheless, if such an agreement were signed and fully implemented, it would unequivocally augment the president’s historical legacy after nearly ten years at the helm of Philippine politics.

Disarray among Moros

The MILF and Moro communities have their own set of problems. While the term
“Bangsamoro” is the current unifying appellation for the thirteen Islamized ethnic groups in the southern Philippines, Moros still identify themselves foremost as Tausug, Maranao, Maguindanao, and so on. Rivalries and disputes fracture Bangsamoro perspectives.

The MNLF and MILF, while claiming to represent all Moros, face opposition from traditional Moro chiefs (datus) and politicians who see these revolutionary organizations as a threat to their political fiefdoms. Disarray in Moro ranks makes it easy for the GRP to divide and co-opt many Moro leaders and diminishes the pressure to deal fairly with the entire Moro people.

Internal Moro conflicts also reduce confidence that any peace agreement will result in long-term stability and good governance. Many in the Moro elite consistently put their personal and clan interests ahead of the common Moro welfare. Corruption and criminality abound in many Moro-ruled areas.

The continued presence in Moro communities of extremist and criminal groups such as Abu Sayyaf, JI affiliates, and others reinforces skepticism among the Christian majority about the merits of accommodating Moro demands and granting Moros greater political autonomy or more control over natural resources.

Wanted: full support

When a comprehensive peace agreement is signed, its implementation will require the full support of the GRP and the MILF as well as the Philippine polity and the international community. The government will need to overcome strong political opposition to compromises made with the Moro minority, while the MILF will need to enlist the support of other Moro factions, including the MNLF, politicians and traditional leaders. 

Philippine civil society—educators, religious leaders, and media—will also be needed to support effort towards conscientious implementation of the agreement by both parties.

The international community must remain engaged, pressing both parties to continue negotiations and to follow through on their agreed commitments during the implementation phase.

These are excerpts from the authors’ special report written for the US Institute of Peace, “Toward Peace in the Southern Philippines,” published in February 2008.