Notes from the Field

Confidence in Mindanao Peace Process Fragile

June 19, 2013

While the peace process in Mindanao has made tremendous progress over the past year, including the signing of a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, there is still a long way to go. The current stage can be described as a “fragile transition,” where there is significant progress in the negotiation of a final settlement to the conflict, but the level of confidence in the process is uncertain.

The Asia Foundation’s new study, “The Contested Corners of Asia,” which examines subnational conflicts (including in Mindanao) across Asia – now the most deadly, widespread, and enduring form of violent conflict, affecting more than 131 million people – concludes that aid to this region needs to be more explicitly focused on conflict by increasing confidence in the peace process and building legitimate institutions.

The origins of the Mindanao conflict can be traced back to the 16th century when the native Moro population under the rule of Islamicized Sultanates successfully resisted subjugation by the Spanish colonial forces, setting them apart from the majority of the Filipinos who were converted to Christianity. The conflict was sparked by a series of resettlement programs to Mindanao by the central government in the 1950s up to the 1970s. This led to widespread dispossession of lands previously owned by the Moros and the indigenous peoples in Mindanao by Christian settlers.

Resistance by the Moros under the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) reached its height during the Marcos martial law regime in the 1970s. It was not until a couple of decades later that a Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with the MNLF was secured under the Ramos administration in 1996. But by then a breakaway group from the MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had emerged, declaring its ultimate objective to establish an Islamic state for the Moros.

After a series of deadly clashes between government forces and MILF rebels, the incumbent administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III successfully forged an interim peace agreement with the MILF called the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” in October 2012. The Framework provides for the creation of the Transition Commission (TC), which will eventually evolve into the Transition Authority (TA) until the full implementation of the new Bangsamoro political entity in 2016. President Aquino recently appointed the 15 Bangsamoro members of the TC. In February 2013, the president and the MILF chair jointly launched the “Sajahatra Bangsamoro,” a project to accelerate delivery of basic services to the Bangsamoro areas and to create employment opportunities. Additional resources for improving delivery of basic services were also allocated by the government to the existing ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) regional government, which covers around 80 percent of the areas being proposed by the MILF as part of the Bangsamoro territory. The government treats this series of initiatives as part of its crucial “confidence-building” measures in support of the peace process.

The donor community appears to be in full support of the government’s peace efforts. An International Contact Group (ICG), composed of representatives from four countries and four international NGOs (including The Asia Foundation), serve as observers to the negotiations between the government and the MILF panels. A jointly administered fund by the UN and the World Bank, called Facility for Advisory Support for Transition Capacities (FASTRAC), was formed to provide technical services to the MILF. Operations of the existing Mindanao Trust Fund (MTF) will be expanded to support Sajahatra Bangsamoro and the formulation of the medium-term reconstruction and development plan for the Bangsamoro.

Despite these positive initiatives and responses, the study shows that spoilers to the peace process abound as subnational conflict does not only involve vertical conflict (i.e., state vs. minority) but also horizontal ones (i.e., inter-elite and inter-communal). The MNLF has rejected the agreement between the government and the MILF and insists that the 1996 FPA is still in operation and that the government should fulfill its obligations under this agreement. A breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), has broken ranks with the main MILF fighting force, maintaining that the FAB was a “sell-out” by the current MILF leadership because it falls short of establishing an “Islamic state” for the Bangsamoro people.

Christian leaders of surrounding provinces have expressed their concern over the areas that will be identified by the Basic Law as part of the new Bangsamoro entity and the powers that will be vested in this new Bangsamoro political entity. Similarly, traditional Moro politicians governing provinces belonging to the ARMM see the new Bangsamoro entity as a threat to the perpetuation of their political powers and ambitions. In preparation for the presidential election in 2016, and as seen in the mid-term election in May 2013, traditional Moro politicians are now attempting to gain the support and loyalty of ordinary Bangsamoro and even rebel field commanders in their respective areas.

The Asia Foundation’s subnational conflict study on Mindanao also reveals that while the focus of the government’s peace effort is settling state-minority contestation, the unintended consequence of the signing of the FAB is the intensification of inter-elite competition. The Moros are familiar with this phenomenon given the prevalence of rido (clan wars) in their communities. But there are signs that the aftermath of the FAB implementation will bring inter-elite contestation to a level and magnitude never seen before. The national government is aware that as it successfully addresses vertical contestation, it should equally pay attention to horizontal conflicts, which if left unattended can negate the positive gains obtained from the former effort. The study recommends that aid should support government efforts in bringing local communities and stakeholders into the peace process

As the study indicates, the signing of the peace agreement is just one of the critical steps in the transition from conflict to peace. The challenge now is how to consolidate the gains of the peace agreement by continually “restoring confidence,” and translating confidence-building measures to legitimate institutions that will ensure the creation of jobs, justice, and security for the citizens of Mindanao.

Fermin D. Adriano is co-author of “The Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Mindanao,” and is currently the senior policy advisor of the World Bank’s State and Peace-Building Fund Project in Manila. He can be reached at fdadriano88@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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