Insights and Analysis

Polling Shows Encouraging Climate of Opinion for Mindanao Peace Negotiations

October 8, 2014

By Steven Rood

On September 10, Philippine President Benigno Aquino personally turned over the draft Basic Law based on the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro to Congress after months of revisions and refinement. The move continues the roadmap set forth in negotiations between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that have been off-and-on since 1997 but accelerated in recent years under President Aquino. MILF Chair Murad and President Aquino met in Japan in July 2011, a Framework Agreement was signed in Manila in October 2012, and a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (fleshing out the details of the Framework) was signed in March 2014.


Marawi City, above, is the capital of Lanao del Sur, part of the ARMM and among the Core Territories for the Bangsamoro. Photo/Karl Grobl

If and when Congress passes the bill, it will be subject to a plebiscite in the Core Territory of the proposed Bangsamoro, and if ratified, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will be replaced by the Bangsamoro. For the first year or so, the new Bangsamoro government will be appointed, but in May 2016, there will be elections for the legislature, proposed to be called the Bangsamoro Parliament, which will in turn elect a chief minister (in short, a parliamentary system unlike the separation-of-powers “presidential” system that exists throughout the rest of the Philippine government, both national and local).

The House of Representatives and the Senate have both begun hearings on the draft bill, which are being closely followed, and considerable energy and excitement has been evident in both mainstream and social media. Congress will hold consultations throughout Mindanao in an effort to discern the opinion of key stakeholders and the general public.

With this in mind, we offer some insights from the latest round of Asia Foundation polling on the Mindanao peace process, undertaken throughout Mindanao earlier this year by Social Weather Stations just as the Comprehensive Agreement was being finalized (thus, questions referred to the Framework Agreement, as they did earlier in December 2012 just after the signing). Since peace in Mindanao is a national issue, there are also some findings over the years on how Filipinos in general feel about the peace process.


Survey work in Muslim Mindanao and other parts of the island is quite complex, representing a striking diversity of ethnicities and beliefs. Currently, only five provinces in the southern Philippines are majority Muslim, and unsurprisingly they now comprise the ARMM. In order to capture this reality, an elaborate survey design is necessary with a large sample. In February 2014, the Mindanao survey had 2,800 respondents, while the March 2014 national survey had only 1,200 respondents. Because of the larger study, we can make statistically representative statements about a number of different areas in Mindanao (whereas for national surveys it is just four strata: National Capital Region, the Rest of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao).


Moving on the map from West to East, we have “Basulta” – Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi – the Sulu Archipelago, part of the Core Territory for the Bangsamoro, that is currently part of the ARMM (except for Isabela City, not currently in ARMM but proposed as part of the Core Territory). This is the heartland of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, the mother separatist organization organized in the 1970s), and was generally the historical base of the Sultanate of Sulu. Ethnically it is dominated by Tausugs and Yakan, while Isabela City has a large Christian population (though the mayor is Muslim).

Zamboanga City, just across the sea from Basilan, is not part of the ARMM nor part of the Core Territory for the Bangsamoro. The dominant language is Chavacano, a creole Spanish language because it was the center of Spanish power in the colonial era. Nowadays it has a substantial Muslim minority, but the mayor is Christian.

Central Mindanao comprises the provinces of Lanao del Sur (the base of several sultanates, with a Maranao population) and Maguindanao (the base of the Sultanate of Maguindanao, with a Maguindanaon population), both part of the ARMM and the Core Territory. Included is Cotabato City, like Isabela City with a substantial Christian population but a Muslim mayor, not currently part of ARMM but proposed to be part of the Bangsamoro. Central Mindanao is the heartland of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front in the 1980s (note that there is considerable overlap geographically between MNLF and MILF communities).

“Nearby Core Areas” are six municipalities in Lanao del Norte, and 39 barangays (villages) in North Cotabato province, that voted in 2001 in a previous plebiscite to join the ARMM, but since the provinces as a whole voted “no” these sub-areas were not included. Given that they are adjacent or close to the rest of the Core Territory, it was decided to include them outright in the plebiscite. (Note that there is a proposed mechanism of other contiguous areas to join the plebiscite, but since the Basic Law has not yet been enacted the mechanism is not yet operative, so we do not know for sure whether any other areas will undergo a plebiscite.)

Nearby Non-Core areas are the rest of the provinces in which these outlying areas exist – Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato. SocSarGen refers to South Cotabato and Sarangani provinces, and General Santos City, which used to be part of a much larger “Cotabato Province” before it began to be broken up in 1966. There are Muslim communities scattered in these areas, but because they form a minority of the population they are not proposed to be part of the Core Territory. Finally, the sample includes the rest of Mindanao; clearly citizens outside of Muslim Mindanao have a stake in peace and development of the area, inasmuch as conflict can deter investment and economic activity over a wider area.


We begin the examination of data with a fundamental question – what do respondents know about the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro? From both late 2012 and early 2014, data show that those farthest away from the Core Territory of the Bangsamoro – SocSarGen and the rest of Mindanao – profess the lowest level of knowledge. Those in Central Mindanao have the highest – though it must be noted that only 58 percent of those respondents feel they have “sufficient” or “extensive” knowledge.” A contrast can be drawn with BaSulTa, where by February 2014 only 20 percent said they had “sufficient” or “extensive” knowledge. Since BaSulTa is part of the Core Territory of the Bangsamoro, some time in the first half of 2015 residents will be voting in a plebiscite. Clearly much more information is needed. How difficult it is to provide citizens with information can be seen from the fact that the time period after the signing of the Framework Agreement, despite news coverage of continuing negotiations, the level of knowledge did not consistently increase.


Somewhat more encouraging for advocates of the Bangsamoro are the results of public general approval or disapproval of the agreement. In the Core Territories (BaSulTa, Central Mindanao, and Nearby Core Areas), approval overshadows disapproval by wide margins (generally more than two-to-one). However, as time passed between the signing of the Framework Agreement on the finalization of all the details in the Comprehensive Agreement, the margins waned somewhat. Perhaps this had to do with the sometimes-contentious negotiations over the Annexes that were being added to the Framework Agreement.

Interestingly enough, we see that even in Zamboanga City approval outweighed disapproval, though by early 2014 this was only by a slight margin. While often seen as a bastion of skepticism given its historical legacy, many in the city see a peace agreement as benefitting them since as an entrepôt it serves as the economic gateway to the Sulu Archipelago.

We do see that the farther people are from the Bangsamoro Core Territory, the more likely they are to disapprove of the agreement. While it is only residents of the proposed Core Territory who will be polled in the plebiscite, it would be beneficial to the success of the Bangsamoro if those outside the area can be convinced of the benefits. For instance, economic connectivity is key to increasing the prosperity of the poverty-stricken areas of the Bangsamoro, and such connectivity would be facilitated by a greater degree of trust.


One of the key proposals in the peace process for the Bangsamoro is the redeployment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as part of the ongoing shift from internal security operations to focus more on external defense. This is enshrined in the AFP’s Internal Peace and Security Plan and would be made possible by decommissioning of the MILF and institution of a new police force in the Bangsamoro. These findings present a very clear pattern: those in the proposed Core Areas have a net agreement with reducing the number of soldiers in the Bangsamoro while those outside are opposed. If such a redeployment is to be accepted by all stakeholders in Mindanao, considerably more explanation of the processes will need to be undertaken to allay fears.

Finally, we turn briefly to the general climate of citizen attitude toward peace negotiations with the MILF. As noted, such negotiations have been going on for a very long time, and support has fluctuated. While Filipinos nationwide tend to support negotiations as the most effective way to deal with the MILF, this support dipped twice in early years: during the “all out war” of President Estrada in 2000, and after an assault on the “Buliok complex” in early 2003. Thereafter, the margin of support for peace negotiations has remained high. Crucially, this support was still high in October 2008 after an upsurge in violence consequent to the debacle of the “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.” This agreement was to be signed by the government and the MILF, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Conflict in central Mindanao surged, and 750,000 people were internally displaced. Strikingly, even in the face of this disruption, the citizenry preferred peace negotiations. Thus, it is no surprise that with the recent progress toward a final settlement with the MILF, support for peace negotiations is quite strong.


While public opinion cannot guide the technical details of peace negotiation or legislation, citizen views do form the environment within which officials and leaders operate, and delineate some of the challenges that lie ahead. Clearly there is a generally encouraging climate of opinion for peace negotiations, but just as clearly more information needs to be provided to the citizens of Mindanao. In particular, some distrust and skepticism of those outside of the Bangsamoro needs to be overcome in order for the Bangsamoro to be truly successful in the coming years.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. From 2009-2013 he observed negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as the Foundation’s representative on the International Contact Group. Since 2013 he has been a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team, overseeing the implementation of agreements. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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