Insights and Analysis

In the Philippines: Supreme Court Halts Mindanao “Memorandum of Agreement”

August 6, 2008

By Steven Rood

Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, representatives of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were slated to sign yet another agreement, two years in the making, that would have moved peace talks one step closer to a comprehensive compact. However, dozens of us — peace negotiators, diplomats, officials, and civil society observers — on a Monday afternoon flight from Manila were startled to learn, when turning on our mobile phones upon landing, that the Philippine’s Supreme Court had issued a temporary restraining order to halt the signing, leaving us to wonder how to move forward. In the short run, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on August 15 on whether to lift the restraining order or to make it permanent.

There is considerable international interest in long-running Philippine attempts to settle Muslim separatist conflicts in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Malaysia is facilitating current talks with the MILF, while Indonesia spearheaded the completion of a “Final Peace Agreement” with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996. Over the years, Libya has hosted numerous efforts, going back decades to the 1976 Tripoli Accord. But foreign interest goes well beyond member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Earlier this year U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney visited the main MILF camp in Darapanan, as did a group of ambassadors from the European Union.

The August 5 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Ancestral Domain was intended to be the last of three sub-components of a peace agreement that began with a cessation of hostilities agreement which was signed in 2001 (and renewed after a breakdown in 2003 — it has since largely held) and continued with an agreement on rehabilitation and development of war-torn areas. Had the third component been signed, it that would have sketched the territorial coverage of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) to supercede the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

But as diplomats and observers who had traveled to Kuala Lumpur to witness the latest step towards a (hopefully) comprehensive and lasting peace realize, the Supreme Court’s decision underscored the many multi-faceted controversies that have emerged in the Philippines.

The ongoing back-and-forth on several issues has led to occasional speculation about a complete breakdown in the talks, and in May the beginning of a Malaysian withdrawal from the International Monitoring Team. Timing is of the essence, as the International Monitoring Team’s term expires at the beginning of September, and the monitoring is key to maintaining the current relatively peaceful situation. Even if the Supreme Court lifts the temporary restraining order and these tasks are accomplished by September, many obstacles remain to a lasting peace.

References to the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF point to divisions within the community of Muslims in the Philippines. Elements of the MNLF have branded talks with the MILF as “illegal,” arguing that the 1996 agreement should hold sway. Besides the MNLF, there are more traditional Muslim politicians holding elective office whose political power might be affected by the establishment of a BJE run by the MILF. Further, there are non-Muslim communities and provinces surrounding the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that are definitely affected by the MOA because there are 712 largely Muslim villages within their boundaries that might (after a plebiscite in 12 months) be added to the territorial coverage of the current ARMM to comprise the newly established BJE.

There is enormous tension around the entire process. Those in favor of the peace process worry about its protracted nature and the ever-present danger of a breakdown due to outbreaks of hostilities. Those suspicious of the process point out that the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF was supposed to be “final” but clearly wasn’t, casting doubt on the future of any accord with the MILF. Manila progressive elites who might seem to be natural allies of the Mindanao peace movement view the exercise as a “decoy,” part of alleged plans by President Macapagal-Arroyo to stay in power.

Frustrations are exacerbated by a lack of information due to the high level of confidentiality maintained during the negotiation. The most public reaction to the announcement of a successful drafting of the MOA for signing was not congratulatory, but rather a demand for the disclosure of its contents. Now that the embargo on the agreement has been lifted, information as to the exact proposed territorial coverage of “ancestral domain” has caused an outcry. One moderate Christian politician declined an invitation to witness Tuesday’s scheduled signing because the inclusion of villages outside of ARMM was viewed as an imposition without consultation.

The outcry must not be viewed in communal “Christian versus Muslim” terms. Not only is such a view incredibly dangerous and counterproductive, but the issues are in fact more complex than that, and are often quite concrete. One mayor estimated that the proposed BJE would reduce the land area of his city by 82 percent ” which would reduce by over 20 percent the block grants the city receives from the national government. This impact on city finances adds injury to the insult of not having been consulted on the proposed arrangements. There has been no discussion of how to compensate local governments for such losses, much less any attempt to demonstrate “peace dividends” for communities that will be outside of, but affected by, the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

To resolve these issues and get the talks back on track, negotiators for both the government and the MILF must pay heed to the roots of the controversy, for it is only by responding to the concerns being raised can a peace process be truly successful.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundations Country Representative in the Philippines.. He can be reached at

Related locations: Philippines



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