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Filipino Citizens Still Optimistic About Chances for Peace in Mindanao

February 22, 2012

Peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur last week featured chocolates on Valentine’s Day. It was a light moment in talks characterized by the Malaysian facilitator as “sincere but tough.” As the next scheduled meeting in March approaches, long-time peace talks observer Carol Arguillas has taken to counting down the days to the end of the first quarter of 2012, which government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen once suggested as a time frame for reaching an agreement. As time marches on, it’s important to take a closer look at how we got here, and what Filipinos actually think about the long-running conflict and the prospect for peace.

A border checkpoint of a MILF camp in Mindanao

Schoolgirls pass through a border checkpoint of a MILF camp in Mindanao. Photo by Karl Grobl.

In fact, the Philippines has had an extraordinarily long peace process with the Moro (Muslim) revolutionary fronts. In 1976 there was the Tripoli Peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that called for autonomy to be granted to 13 provinces in Mindanao and Palawan. But in the implementation, Ferdinand Marcos used his martial law powers to institute, instead, two autonomous regions which the MNLF regarded as divisive. After the fall of Marcos in 1986, the autonomy arrangement was re-worked under the 1987 Constitution. Despite the 1986 meeting of President Corazon Aquino and MNLF Chair Nur Misuari in Sulu, the MNLF did not take part in the 1990 institution of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Then, in 1996, a “Final Agreement on the Implementation of the Tripoli Agreement” was reached between the government and the MNLF, but to this day problems plague the full-implementation of that agreement. An upcoming March meeting between the government and the MNLF in Indonesia will be an attempt to bring closure to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1997 and continuing to this day, have been negotiations with the MILF, established by Hashim Salamat due to discontent with the leadership of Nur Misuari and the direction things were taking after the 1976 agreement. In 2008 a major document – the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) – waiting to be signed was declared unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court, which resulted in an upsurge of violence leading to some 600,000 people being displaced from their homes in Mindanao. Remarkably at the time, the average Filipino in sample surveys continued to view the situation calmly, believing that peaceful means were the best way to handle the crisis.

Now, more than three years later, the government and the MILF continue to meet, with the latest talks in Kuala Lumpur having ended on February 15. These talks come in the wake of President Noynoy (the son of Corazon) Aquino traveling to Japan on Aug. 4, 2011, to meet with the chairman of the MILF. The two sides agreed to “fast-track” negotiations, and a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations found that citizen distrust of the MILF had somewhat dissipated and that there was optimism about the prospects of reaching a peace agreement.

Unfortunately, one month later, there was an encounter in Basilan between elements of the Philippine military and the MILF that led to 19 deaths on the government side. There is considerable controversy about this incident, and the special forces commanders involved were relieved of their responsibility. While peace talks continued after that, media focus was on conflict rather than peaceful resolution.

A nationwide citizen survey undertaken in early December 2011 did indicate a decline in optimism about chances for a peace settlement (from 83% down to 71%), as well as a decline in the average citizen’s support for peaceful means to settle the conflict. It must be stressed however, that even after this incident, 49 percent of respondents preferred peaceful means while only 17 percent favored military means (the rest found both means equally effective).

I have written before about how the stereotype of Muslim-Christian animosity is overblown, that Christian Filipinos do indeed have a fairly high opinion of Muslims. The average citizen is troubled by violence in the southern Philippines, and is willing to take peaceful steps to resolve issues.

In the face of the earlier Supreme Court ruling, there are naturally questions about whether to change the constitution, something about which Filipinos are typically skeptical. In 2010, when peace panel chairman Marvic Leonen opined that constitutional change is not off the table, he was roundly criticized by many political actors. As so often happens in the Philippines, there is a gap between the public discourse reflected in the media and the opinions of the average Filipinos. In this case, 47 percent of citizens agree that a constitutional amendment is necessary to have peace in Mindanao (as opposed to only 22% who disagree – the rest being undecided). Further, 58 percent say they would vote for such an amendment.

Of course, there are many more difficult issues that must be discussed in peace talks with the MILF. But the atmosphere might be characterized as supportive, with the general public open to persuasion and a current president whom the MILF has accepted as sincere in pursuing peace.

This is the fifth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Eufemia Munn:

    Very enlightening article on the current status of Philippine government negotiations with MILF. Mr. Rood’s comment, ” how the stereotype of Muslim-Christian animosity is overblown that Christians indeed have a fairly high opinion of Muslim” is true.There is a stark difference between the Muslims there where I was born and grew up, and those we hear lot daily in the media – fanatics and radicals. I spend a great deal of time in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur at Shalom Science Institute. I started right on the heels of bombing of Camp Abubakar in July, 2000. It has been my mission during the last 12 years as a development and educational consultant. In its 16 years of existence, the school has cultivated a degree of relationship with Muslims to promote peace and harmony.

    Eufemia Munn
    Medical Lake, WA

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