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Next Philippine President Noynoy Aquino Pledges Peace, but How?

June 25, 2010

On June 30, Noynoy Aquino will take his oath of office for a six-year term as president of the Philippines. He faces many challenges, not least the resolution of some of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.

He succeeds President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who served almost nine and a half years after President Joseph Estrada was ousted in 2001. President Estrada launched an “all out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000. By contrast, when Mrs. Arroyo took office, she declared a policy of “all out peace,” and over the years, peace talks with the MILF have reached several agreements and a cessation of hostilities has generally held, despite notable exceptions in February 2003 and August 2008. The latter breakdown was associated with the abortive Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), declared unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court. Several hundred thousand people were internally displaced from the resulting return to violence, and only began to return to their homes in July 2009 when both sides agreed to cease hostilities.

By the end of the Arroyo administration, a final peace agreement with the MILF was not reached. At their last negotiating session in Kuala Lumpur in early June, the two sides signed a “Declaration of Continuity” summarizing what has been achieved and what would be reasonable directions forward. At this time of transition, there was some disagreement about the value of the Declaration. The dean of Mindanao journalism, Patricio Diaz, criticized it as “limiting Aquino’s options.” Tony La Vina, a member of the government’s Peace Panel, feels it is a “good ending of the Arroyo stewardship of the Mindanao peace process.”

As complex as it is, the MILF strand is but one of many challenges that the incoming Aquino administration faces in making peace. In the early 1990s under President Fidel V. Ramos, his National Unification Commission addressed several security challenges: a disgruntled military that had engaged in several coup attempts, the communist New People’s Army, and Muslim separatism by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Almost 20 years later, alleged coup plotters are once again being tried, there has not been progress in peace talks with the communists since Ramos’ term ended in 1998, and the MNLF and the government have been for the past couple of years engaged in further negotiations on the implementation of their 1996 peace agreement, generally styled the “Final Peace Agreement.”

In short, Noynoy Aquino faces the same set of challenges in making peace as did his mother, Corazon C. Aquino, in 1992 at the end of her term as president. Given this set of circumstances, what are the chances of actually making peace during his term? The most likely prediction is that the restive military will be adequately dealt with, while it is more difficult to predict progress with the communist insurgency; and while peace with the MILF and the MNLF is doable, it will be difficult.

In Noynoy’s favor is the general political climate in which he will take office – his winning margin was the largest since the 1986 fall of the Marcos dictatorship so he has political capital. Also, in a major campaign speech on National Security, Noynoy reached out to disgruntled elements of the military with his emphasis on training and equipment, increased welfare for personnel and their families, and an attack on the corruption that erodes the capacity of security forces and enrages reform elements within them.

As for the communist rebels, he could benefit by explicitly contrasting his peace policy with Arroyo’s war policy. She ordered the security forces to wipe out the New People’s Army (NPA) before she stepped down from office, a deadline that was not met. While it was the anti-communist left that was part of Noynoy’s campaign, the incoming president is serious about negotiations with NPA. For this round of negotiations, Noynoy has designated long-time peace advocate Teresita “Ging” Deles as head of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). (Deles was one of the “Hyatt 10″ who resigned from President Arroyo’s cabinet in July 2005 in protest over evidence of fraud in the 2004 elections.) However, with respect to the National Democratic Front, the political organization that backs the NPA, it has been so long since serious negotiations have taken place that it is hard to assess real prospects for peace.

Almost the opposite is true for Muslim separatist movements – many separate formal and informal negotiations with the MILF and the MNLF have taken place over the past decade. The Noynoy campaign touted a “Mindanao Peace and Development Agenda” approach to include governance and development, and promises to bring all stakeholders into the peace process.

The Aquino family has a history of taking reconciliation with Muslims in the Philippines seriously. His father, Ninoy Aquino, before he was assassinated in 1983, visited MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari in Jeddah, and his mother, after she became president in 1986, went to Sulu, Misuari’s home territory to meet with him. Yet, his coalition includes those who are widely perceived to be skeptical of the peace process, having opposed the MOA-AD.

Even among those in the Aquino camp who are supportive of the peace process, there is skepticism about the tangled web of international involvement that has been woven. Involved in the MILF peace process is an International Monitoring Team (headed by Malaysia and includes Libya, Brunei, Japan, Norway, and the European Union), an International Contact Group (Japan, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, along with international NGOs such as The Asia Foundation), and a civilian protection component that includes Nonviolent Peaceforce (another international NGO).

In all this, the elements of a Mindanao settlement are fairly clear, as are some of the obstacles. Muslim Mindanao needs more control over its own affairs, but divisions among the MNLF, the MILF, and elected Muslim politicians in the area will hinder the Aquino administration’s desire to take a coordinated approach to the issue. A shaky law and order situation requires the continued security sector reform that Noynoy has pledged: management mechanisms for rido (clan feuds) need strengthening, and criminal elements such as kidnappers must be brought to justice. Accelerated investment in social services and infrastructure have been pledged in Noynoy’s Mindanao Peace and Development Agenda, but governance in the area must be improved for sustainable development. To the current territory of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, other majority-Muslim areas need to be added (should they vote to join). But Christians and indigenous peoples also need assurances that their legitimate and vested rights will be protected. And finally, a balance of confidentiality and transparency in negotiations to reassure skeptics of an acceptable outcome, and sufficient political support for any eventual settlement, will be necessary.

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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