Insights and Analysis

In the Philippines: Peace, Elections, Autonomy, and Development in Mindanao

August 13, 2008

By Steven Rood

After living in the Philippines for 27 years, I spend a good deal of my time explaining the country to foreigners. Over the last few weeks, however, I have found myself explaining events that concern one group of Filipinos to other Filipinos. The hot issues at the moment ” the ones everybody is now talking about in this country ” are ones I care deeply about. As I told Carol Arguillas of MindaNews in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week, “I’m worried that an exclusive focus on peace efforts makes it harder to draw in others who are concerned with better elections, better governance, development, etc. Peace can be profitably pursued in the broader context of good governance and development rather than in a narrow focus.”

So, let me talk some about the broader connections among the four words in my title: Peace, Elections, Autonomy, and Development.


On August 4th, I was on the plane from Manila to Kuala Lumpur with dozens of peace negotiators, diplomats, officials, and civil society observers going to witness the signing of a memorandum between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government. We were all surprised when we landed, turned on our mobile phones, and learned that the Supreme Court had issued a temporary restraining order to halt the signing by the Philippine Government of the Memorandum of Agreement with the MILF on Ancestral Domain. Of course, this development ” and then the subsequent release of the full text of the MOA as scheduled at 10:00 am August 5th ” caused an uproar.

At least we got their attention! Now everyone is speaking or blogging or writing about the peace process. I don’t pretend to have read all of it ” in fact, I can’t even keep up with the output of the core people involved (Bong Montesa, MindaNews staff, Newsbreak, etc.) much less everything else being published in the mainstream media and on the internet. I will, however, echo another Mindanao writer, Hernani de Leon in BusinessWorld, when he found comments from those at the national level, “who were not monitoring the progress of the peace talks … amusing, or even irritating. Most of their concerns were on issues that have been available and discussed extensively in civil society circles here [down south] years ago.”

I do not propose to discuss the details of the peace process but would like to make three points.

First, it is entirely true that there has been a lack of adequate consultations. There were reasons for this ” both the GRP and MILF panels talk about the need for confidentiality in negotiations. However, this is a central problem in the peace process as, to be implemented properly, you need stakeholder “ownership”, but ownership is only felt when people believe they contribute input into final decisions rather than only being asked at the end if they agree.

The Mindanao Working Group of donors, government agencies, private sector, and civil society last March issued a call to “ensure greater stakeholders’ participation” in the peace process. Therefore, the demand for consultations does not come just from die-hard opponents of the peace process. And, it is worth noting, it does not only come from Christians ” Governor Teng Mangudadatu of Sultan Kudarat led a rally on August 7th in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat province. I emphasize this last point because the single most dangerous tendency in the peace process is to stigmatize it as dividing Muslims and Christians. We definitely do not want to go down that path. We need extensive, multi-sectoral consultations that are truly informative rather than mere mobilizations for or against the peace process.

Second, apprehensions that have been expressed are often reasonable. As we all know, the government of Iligan City, led by Mayor Lawrence Cruz, objects to the possibility of losing barangays to the BJE. Let’s leave aside the question of whether those barangays are Higaonon indigenous peoples’ ancestral domain. If those barangays are taken away and added to the BJE, Iligan City stands to lose 82% of the land area which would mean 20% cut in the Internal Revenue Allotment from the national government. What do you expect any responsible mayor to say about such a drastic cut in his city’s resources?

Third, peace advocates are not connecting well with their natural allies. I have often said to members of the peace movement that they are not the correct people to reach out to those opposed to the peace process. There are other mechanisms ” for example, business associations that have concrete economic interests in peace ” which can help sway those who are currently far from supporting efforts to reach an agreement.

What I mean here is that there are advocates of good governance, reform, and empowered development who have been among those reacting against the current state of the peace process, including the MOA on AD. Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Economic Reform referred to the MOA as a “decoy.” Much of the suspicion among progressives revolves around the need for constitutional change in order fully to implement the provisions on Ancestral Domain, and the thought that the current administration of President Macapagal-Arroyo would use “cha-cha” (“charter change”) to their advantage to remain in power.


I turn now to Elections because divisions on this issue between peace advocates and other progressive groups was very evident in the past few weeks during discussions of postponing the elections for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, now scheduled for next Monday, August 11th. Despite the fact that civil society, the MILF, and some sections of the MNLF had been asking for the postponement for several months, most people heard about it in late July, when President Arroyo announced she would support postponement.

Election reform advocates were appalled and outraged ” the August 11th election is crucial to efforts to modernize the 2010 elections. Technologies are being tested, and deployment logistics are being rehearsed. It must be done now if there is to be the normal 18 months of preparation before electoral modernization for May 2010 (a time period that starts this December 2008).

Unfortunately, the sentiment was reciprocated by peace advocates. They were appalled and outraged that election reform advocates wanted to push through with the elections at the possible cost of bumps in the peace process. During the weekend of July 26th, when it looked like the Ancestral Domain MOA would not be finalized, a peace advocate posted an entry on the internet, which lumped together both those raising vigilante militia and those opposing the postponement of the elections as rejoicing at stalled peace talks. We must bring back together these two different strands of reform political thought ” achieving sustainable peace and reforming elections.

This problem of elections is wide-spread. A mayor, when asked why he objected to the listing of areas “without consultation” since inclusion in the BJE would be subject to plebiscite, responded, “you know how elections work here in the Philippines” ” meaning, he had no belief in the system.

Among Muslims, the ulama have said that people must “rise against the sarcastic perception that the ARMM is the “˜cheating capital for elections.'”

And, when we ask ordinary citizens in the ARMM about elections (in a Social Weather Stations survey earlier this year), 65% agree: “It is good to have an unopposed candidate in an election since it reduces campaign violence and insecurity.”

Thus, there is a great urgency to produce elections that are Clean, Honest, Accurate, Meaning Peaceful (CHAMP ” to use the term of Ambassador de Villa of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, PPCRV). For the progress of the peace process, for better governance in Mindanao, and progress in the Philippines, we need to take elections seriously. It is very unfortunate that in the last several weeks reforming elections and achieving peace have been seen as opposing goals.


For more than thirty years there have been a variety of “autonomous governments” in areas of Mindanao, with new varieties being instituted in 1977, 1990, and 2001. Over the course of five national administrations, numerous regional administrations, and varying intensities of separatist armed conflict, there is general agreement that “autonomy” has not resolved the issues plaguing Muslim Mindanao. It is therefore remarkable that this arrangement has persisted.

One reason has to do with how “autonomy” plays politically. It is something less than “independence” so it does not threaten the territorial integrity of the Philippines. It is seen as a way of meeting demands of Moro revolutionary organizations, but which does not change the constitutional arrangements of the Philippine government.

The current negotiation is with the MILF, as Attorney Soliman Santos aims to “frame a qualitatively better and higher degree of self-determination for the Bangsamoro people short of independence or secession.” But I would make a point that the “higher degree of self-determination” must not be seen as autarky ” as the BJE being isolated from the rest of the Philippines, much less the rest of Mindanao. Certainly, according to the MOA on the AD, the BJE will be able to “establish and open Bangsamoro trade missions in foreign countries,” but this is not the action of an independent country. Cities and States in the U.S. open trade missions abroad all the time.

The economy of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity will necessarily be linked to Zamboanga City, General Santos City Iligan, and Davao City. The work of economist Fermin Adriano demonstrates the trade flows that occur between conflict-affected areas and urban markets even in the worst of times. If peace were to be established those flows would be increased, leading to more jobs and investment at both end of the flow ” where goods are produced and the trading centers. A BJE that was cut off from such flows, that was cut off from the rest of the island, would be an impoverished BJE.

In this context, it is important that the peace process not create resentments that interfere with these linkages. A survey we did of ARMM and surrounding areas in 2002 found greater support for “independence” as a future for the ARMM among Christians adjacent to ARMM than among ARMM residents ” Christian or Muslim. They just wanted perceived problems to “go away,” literally. There might develop a tendency toward apartheid ” and as I noted above, this is the kind of development that most threatens our move towards sustainable peace.


Going back to my original point, that “Peace can be profitably pursued in the broader context of good governance and development rather than in a narrow focus,” you can see some of how I see the relations between peace, politics, and economics. A draft vision produced by the Mindanao Media Summit certainly is multi-dimensional:

Mindanao is a land where multi-cultural, free, informed and educated citizens co-exist in peace, harmony, justice, respect for human rights, economic self-reliance and sustained development, enjoying equitable share of wealth and managed environment and natural resources, and governed in transparency, accountability and participatory decision-making on a social agenda embodied in truth and democratic ideals.

I think that there should more linkages pursued by advocates of peace, reformed politics, and better economics. As I told Carol Arguillas in the news story she filed, the reason the sprouting of peace groups in Mindanao seemed not to have had the desired impact is that the efforts have “not changed the national politics of peace-making in the Philippines.”

For the future of Mindanao, and the future of the Philippines, the politics must change.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The below is adapted from a speech given at the 4th Mindanao Media Summit, “Mindanao 2020: The Vision begins with Us”, from August 7 ” 9, 2008 in Davao.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Elections


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