In The News

Pivots Toward Peace in Mindanao

July 25, 2012

A fortnight ago I blogged about the energy for peace I found at two very different events in Mindanao. We might now ask: what is the origin of that energy, and of the general surge toward a peace agreement?

At first glance, this may seem to have an obvious answer, since it is clear from citizen surveys that Filipinos in general, and Mindanao residents in particular, prefer peaceful means to resolve issues being raised by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other Muslim organizations. But, as I have written before, sometimes a small number of people are sufficient to keep a conflict burning. So, why does that not seem to be happening in Mindanao, where clashes between government and Muslim separatist forces have gone down to zero recently?  It is valuable to have some clarity on this issue, as a misreading may have untoward consequences.

One recent analysis put forth the theory that the MILF basically has no choice but to negotiate, as it is “a shadow of its former self.” There are two things wrong with this analysis. The first is that it is incorrect. As the chair of the government panel for peace talks with the MILF tweeted in response to this, “this misunderstands and is an oversimplification of the leadership of the MILF and its relationship to followers.”  These “shadows” managed to bring to one place in their main Camp Darapanan some 200,000 participants in the July 7 Leaders Assembly. (I stand by my estimate, which jibes with those independently arrived at by a member of the government’s ceasefire team and a Moro NGO leader.) An interesting variation on mass mobilization was the next day, when several hundred Bangsamoro leaders dialogued with the MILF. These were not core MILF constituents – I spoke with a number of them – rather, they were what might be termed local notables (teachers, government employees, small traders) from across Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. They were drawn by the prospect of discussing the future with the organization that currently looks close to an agreement with the government.

The second problem with this analysis is the implication (particularly after the peaceful show of strength in Darapanan) that the only way to demonstrate that the MILF is not a shadow of its former self is by demonstrating strong military action. This alternative is hard for all sides to contemplate:  even what this analysis dismisses as “low-level sporadic attacks” in 2008 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.

In short, the MILF has made a strategic judgment to “pivot toward peace” and is sticking to that direction. Of course there is pressure on the MILF’s negotiating panel and the leadership to actually achieve something – to demonstrate that this peaceful process can attain the goals of their constituency. Such pressure is preferable to outright military action as a method of demonstrating that they are not “shadows of their former selves.”

As befits an open democratic system, we know with much more precision what the government’s motives toward peace are. There is President Aquino’s personal commitment to the legacy of his family – the administration has vowed to bring to closure all the different internal conflicts of the country. At the same time there is the increasing urgency of attaining a “minimum credible defense” against external pressures. What began as a general discussion in PNoy’s first State of the National Address in 2010 of the need to bolster the navy has morphed into a focus on disputes with China in the West Philippine/South China Sea. In that light, a “rebalancing” away from expenditures on domestic insurgencies to territorial defense lends a strong practical aspect to peace talks.

Still, to talk of “the Philippine government” is to oversimplify – since many domestic stakeholders have differing incentives. For instance, as the International Crisis Group has recently documented, Muslim elected local officials – particularly those in the Sulu archipelago – do not necessarily view with equanimity the prospect of an agreement that leaves the MILF in the driver’s seat. Or, while there are business leaders advocating for a peace agreement in order to reassure investors and boost the economy, the Zamboanga Business Conference (which covers the area just outside the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) passed a resolution opposing even participating in a plebiscite about whether to join any new political entity.

The government peace panel is operating in this arena of mixed incentives, and much of their negotiating behavior is in pursuit of an agreement that they can, indeed, implement. In the concept of the “2011 World Development Report: Conflict, Security, and Development,” the government is in pursuit of an “inclusive enough” coalition and so needs to consider the incentives that all stakeholders face.

But there is one question that continues to stump analysts: what incentives are faced by Nur Misuari, the founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF – from which the MILF split 30 years ago)?  Professor Misuari, “Maas” as he is respectfully and fondly called, has made his displeasure manifest both with the government’s negotiating with the MILF and with progress towards the full implementation of the Final Peace Agreement signed between the government and the MNLF in 1996.

There have been efforts both to write off Misuari and to bring unity between him and the MILF, or other factions of the MNLF. The fact of the matter is that among ordinary Moros throughout Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, Nur Misuari is widely admired and respected. A durable peace would definitely be bolstered by solving the Misuari puzzle.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. 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.

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