Notes from the Field

A Year On, Prospects for Mindanao Peace Talks Brighten Again

August 19, 2009

After a year of increased violence in central Mindanao, signs of hope have appeared. In August 2008, the government of the Philippines was on the verge of signing a agreement on ancestral domain with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), only to have the Philippine Supreme Court issue a last-minute temporary restraining order against the signing and later rule the proposed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) unconstitutional. In the aftermath of that debacle, elements of the MILF attacked Christian areas of Mindanao, and the government launched operations against those elements. While it was often said that only three MILF commanders were the target of the operations and that the cessation of hostilities between the government and the MILF continued to be in force, the facts of the matter included hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, the withdrawal of the International Monitoring Teams that had reinforced the cessation of hostilities, and the complete suspension of peace talks.

By late July 2009, after months of informal talks, first the government and then the MILF publically announced that they were suspending the operations of their military. And, on July 29, the panels officially met in Kuala Lumpur under the auspices of Malaysian facilitation, to complete the preparation of the resumption of peace talks.

It is a sign of the skepticism that greets initiatives of the current administration – due to bow out on July 1, 2010 after more than nine years – that most commentators did not take these moves at face value. Rather than an attempt to actually achieve peace in Mindanao, commentators suspected that President Arroyo was trying to improve her image ahead of her July 30 meeting with President Obama, or looking for talking points for her State of the Nation Address (SONA). “It’s all media-hype. I’m sure her decision will not change the situation in Mindanao. Undoubtedly, she is creating a situation that is favorable to her SONA,” said Ramon Casiple, Executive Director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

One reason for this skepticism is perceived divisions among government policy-makers, with some in the security sector advocating a hard line, particularly in view of the recent incident in Basilan province. Government and MILF forces tangled when the government was found engaging an Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang. Dozens were killed on both sides, calls were made for the MILF to definitively disavow any relation to Abu Sayyaf, and many wondered if peace talks with the MILF could be effective. There is a widely held belief that a “military hard line” is politically popular – but this is a myth. Polling data during the “all out war” by former President Estrada in 2000 showed that his offensive against the MILF provided no lasting boost to his popularity. Recent probability surveys by Social Weather Stations, funded by The Asia Foundation, conducted separately for the nation as a whole and then for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), show a distinct lack of support for the military option. Belying many analyses that the average Christian Filipino is anti-Muslim, only 24 percent of the nationwide sample think military operations are more effective. Unsurprisingly, respondents in ARMM overwhelmingly prefer peaceful negotiations, but citizens all over the country are willing to give negotiations a chance.

“What do you think is the more effective means for government to do in dealing with the MILF rebellion?”

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This finding is bolstered by a second question where, perhaps surprisingly, respondents refused to scapegoat the MILF for the violence that followed the MOA-AD hiccup.

“The government and the MILF were ready to sign the MOA-AD in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last August 5, but the signing was stopped by order of the Philippine Supreme Court in response to a petition from some Christian local officials of Mindanao. This was followed by attacks of the MILF on a number of villages in Mindanao; many civilians died and thousands fled from their homes. Would you say that the responsibility for the violence should be placed with…”

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Nationwide, citizens perceive that both the government and the MILF bear responsibility (and in ARMM the government is perceived to be mostly to blame).

From this data we can glean that the general public nationwide is indeed open to the negotiations that seem to be on the offing – willing to give negotiations a chance and not willing to demonize one side or the other.

And, what of the substance of the negotiations that ignited the entire year-long cycle? As noted, the Philippine Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional. This means that that the campaign that one sees in some localities in Mindanao urging people to “Uphold MOA-AD” is a non-starter from the viewpoint of the government – yet, the MILF wishes to preserve the gains it made in negotiations. Negotiators in Kuala Lumpur arrived at the formula of:

“Acknowledgment of MOA-AD as an unsigned and yet initialed document, and commitment by both parties to reframe the consensus points with the end in view of moving towards the comprehensive compact to bring about a negotiated political settlement.”

The panels thus vowed to go back to the prior consensus points and reframe the expression of those points to move forward. Rather than insisting on the MOA-AD as written, they will try to capture the substance by “reframing” it.

As many have noted, it is likely that any lasting peace with the MILF will involve changing the constitution. The executive branch, as the negotiating party for the Philippine government, cannot guarantee such a change, but can promise to try to push amendments through the necessary ratification process. Social Weather Stations has found that despite the fact that respondents generally don’t like the idea of changing the constitution, they are willing to do so for peace in Mindanao. Many more citizens agree that amending the constitution is necessary than who disagree:

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*Net = % Strongly/Somewhat Agree minus % Somewhat/Strongly Disagree

After a year of increased military operations, peace talks are once again starting and the Philippine public is willing to see negotiations move forward. Those who tend to look on the bright side now have something to see. While it seems unlikely that a final peace agreement could be reached within the short remaining lifespan of the current administration, the mere fact that both the government and the MILF are returning to talks is likely to improve life for those in central Mindanao who have fled the fighting.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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One comment on this post:

  1. Stephanie:

    I would like to know if the peace negotiations in Mindanao is already efficient.

    The information will be used for a report.
    Thank you very much

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