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Imperatives for Peace Face New President in the Philippines

May 4, 2016

By Anna Tasnim Basman, Steven Rood

“No administration can afford to ignore the costs of conflict in Mindanao – not the human costs of conflict, the costs of development delayed or foregone, the budgetary and security costs of conflict, nor the risk of worsening a climate conducive to the spread of violent extremism.”

This was the latest assessment of the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) regarding the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed in 2014 between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). As the campaign period for the May 9 general elections comes to a close, increasing numbers of Bangsamoro peace process advocates are pushing national and local candidates for more explicit statements regarding their strategy in resolving the protracted conflict in Mindanao. Some worry about whether the peace process will continue under a new president.

As the campaign period for the May 9 general elections comes to a close, increasing numbers of Bangsamoro peace process advocates are pushing national and local candidates for more explicit statements regarding their strategy in resolving the protracted conflict in Mindanao. Photo/Mar Roxas Facebook page

As the campaign period for the May 9 general elections comes to a close, increasing numbers of Bangsamoro peace process advocates are pushing national and local candidates for more explicit statements regarding their strategy in resolving the protracted conflict in Mindanao. Photo/Mar Roxas Facebook page

All five presidential candidates have spoken at length on peace in the region, and two have gone to a meeting with the MILF in their Camp Darapanan headquarters. Three aspirants – Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sec. Mar Roxas II, and Sen. Grace Poe – have expressed support for the peace process with Poe expressing reservations for a more inclusive one (albeit the government panel’s assertion that broad consultations have been made). Meanwhile, Vice President Jejomar Binay vowed to end violence in the region by eliminating poverty and Sen. Miriam Santiago promised to dismantle private armies and adopt a hybrid justice system.

Looking ahead of May 9 elections, here are some reasons why the implementation of the CAB should be among the next administration’s priority agenda.

To accelerate national growth and development
Based on the UN’s 2012/2013 Philippine Human Development Report, continued armed rebellion is one of the causes for the inclusion of four out of the five ARMM provinces in the country’s lowest-ranking areas in terms of human development. However, with the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the largest rebel group in the south (MILF), relative peace took place which allowed for the acceleration of growth and development in the region. The importance of peace in Mindanao for the country’s overall development was reaffirmed by the support the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) provided to the drafting of a Bangsamoro Development Plan by the Bangsamoro Development Agency.

To prevent the spread of radicalization
In the midst of the Bangsamoro Basic Law impasse, members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other local terrorist organizations have made public pronouncements pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). This led to the deluge of warnings that the failure to pass the measure could be used by extremist groups to recruit members from the community who are frustrated by the lack of traction in the realization of the comprehensive agreement. The MILF responded by working with the Philippine military and police in its fight against ASG and forming its own task force composed of Islamic preachers who go around various Bangsamoro areas to counter the radical narratives of the threat groups.

To enhance territorial defense capability
Along with the internal security threat plaguing the country is the ongoing territorial dispute with China. While the International Arbitral Tribunal deliberates on this dispute, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Department of National Defense (DND) continue to hold a series of joint exercises with other foreign troops and implement military upgrade projects in order to improve the armed forces’ territorial defense capability. Unfortunately, only a small number of soldiers benefit from these trainings as the majority are focused on addressing local security issues. According to National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, the completion of the Bangsamoro peace process can help address this concern as “it will close one of the serious internal armed conflicts in the country [which will] essentially free up a significant component of the AFP to shift resources on external concerns.”

While it requires the full implementation of the peace agreement for the AFP transition to gradually be realized, three bodies have been created in the interim to guarantee security of the Bangsamoro from threats to peace and stability – the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), and the International Monitoring Team (IMT). Through these three mechanisms, no clash was recorded between the rebel group and the security force from 2012 to 2015, except for January 2015 incident in Mamasapano that happened outside the coordinating mechanisms.

Amid the stalled passage of the Basic Law, the AFP and the MILF continue to work together in maintaining peace in the area. Some of these efforts include the joint operations that led to the killing of Abdul Basit Usman, the joint agreement to keep Barangay Macalang in Al-Barka, Basilan free from the presence of Abu Sayyaf members, the repositioning of about 1,700 MILF forces to give way to the military operations against Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao, and the provision of evacuation centers to the displaced that gave way to the successful capture of the leadership of the Maute group in Lanao.

The government and the MILF also continue to implement some aspects of the agreement such as the decommissioning of 145 MILF combatants – a majority of whom are now undergoing livelihood trainings to help ease the transition to civilian life. The rebel group also registered for a political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, led by its armed wing but is holding off participation in the regional election until the Bangsamoro government is established.

In his latest statement, MILF Chairman Al Haj Ebrahim Murad vowed to continue seeking and working for the final peaceful settlement of the conflict in Mindanao through the full implementation of the CAB. The Moro front remains to be the largest credible rebel group in the Bangsamoro that has the support and loyalty of the local community, including non-MILF members and some factions of the MNLF. Disengaging them is not the best way to resolve the conflict in Mindanao.

As we transition to a new administration, there will inevitably be a period while a strategy for peace is developed. While the issue has played only a small role in the campaign, it is imperative that the next president of the Philippines ensures that a strategic policy that warrants governance, economic, and security advancements for the entire country is put in place and implemented as rapidly as possible.

Anna Tasnim Basman is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines, and Steven Rood is country representative there. Basman can be reached at annatasnim.basman@asiafoundation.org and Rood at steven.rood@asiafoundation.org and @StevenRoodPH on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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