Written by Julia Palmiano Federer.
The current peace process between the Government of the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was dealt a large blow in late January 2016 with the non-passage of a diluted version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The BBL is a bill slated to transform central elements of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) into law and thereby establishing a new Bangsamoro political entity that would replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The passing of the BBL was envisioned as a mid-way point in the implementation of the CAB, jumpstarting processes of popular ratification and election of a governing body by 2016. However, it became fraught with questions regarding its constitutionality and eventually failed to pass in the House of Representatives of the 16th Congress. It remains pending in the 16th Congress until 30 June, as the Senate cannot support it without the approval of the House of Representatives. The enormity of the bill’s non-passage is compounded by the upcoming general elections on 9 May 2016 and accompanying change in administration. Once Congress reconvenes after the election, the bill will have to be re-filed, rendering the future of the peace process uncertain.
The Bangsamoro peace process and the upcoming elections are inextricably linked. Despite the delicate situation of the BBL, the CAB can be a source of stability in this administrative transition, transcending uncertainties about actors, agreements, and constituents. Firstly, it can act as a starting point for trust and relationship building among shifting peace actors. Secondly, it can maintain peace structures and security mechanisms that can keep peace on the ground while contentious legal issues are discussed. Thirdly, it can foster positive public sentiment as a clear achievement of the peace process during an uncertain time. However, this potential remains fragile and highlights the difficulty of implementing peace agreements, especially during periods of transition. The following sections explores the opportunities and risks surrounding the CAB and the upcoming elections.
The actors: a starting point for trust building
During negotiations, building and maintaining trust between parties to conflict is essential to moving the process forward, and naturally, this takes time, effort, and political will. Members of both the government and MILF negotiating panels, as well as third-party supports of the peace process maintain that there will be no renegotiation of the CAB, as the cumulative product of 17 years of peace talks was already agreed upon by both negotiating parties. These interlocutors have also confirmed the maintenance of numerous local, national and international bodies and groups supporting the peace process in a complex architecture of implementation mechanisms. The non-passage of the BBL mere months before a change in the Philippine administration will inevitably result in the reshuffling of relevant stakeholders that will have to negotiate the next steps and the uncertain future of the CAB’s implementation. Viewing the CAB as a stable milestone can render it a starting point for trust and relationship building. However, the stances of most political candidates towards dialogue and the future of the peace process remains unclear, and recent populist rhetoric against the peace process by certain prominent politicians vying for office does not bode well for transitioning from the signing of a peace agreement towards implementation.
The agreement: a mechanism for peace and beyond legislation
While the non-passage of the BBL in Congress highlights the incongruence between peace agreements and legislation, it is important to remember that the CAB did not only deal with legislative issues, but created key peace structures and security mechanisms. The BBL process became protracted as the Constitutionality of the bill was questioned in Congress. The legal problems the BBL encountered were exacerbated by procedural issues (the lack of quorum when meetings were convened) against a climate of political tension caused the Mamasapano incident in January 2015. However, the signing of the CAB also jumpstarted a “normalization” process that aims at the transition of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Forces (BIAF) towards civilian life, socio-economic development and opportunities for redress. The decommissioning process already saw 145 members of the BIAF hand over 75 crew-served weapons and high-powered rifles in a ceremonial turnover. The non-passage of the BBL has affected the timeline of the decommissioning of MILF weapons and combatants. As the CAB dictates that its process moves along with the legislative progress of the proposed measure, the decommissioning process has been put on pause. Thus, how the next Congress will reconcile issue of constitutionality will fundamentally affect the implementation of the peace agreement not only on legislation, but security-related matters as well.
The constituents: a platform for public buy-in to the peace process
One of the most essential elements of parties successfully implementing a peace agreement is guaranteeing the buy-in of their constituents. In the Bangsamoro context, this means that the communities affected by conflict, the ex-combatants, and relevant armed groups must see the desired change that they sought through political dialogue. Popular sentiment at large must also buy into the peace agreement for any implementation to work and be sustainable. The CAB presents great potential for nationwide sentiment towards dialogue, peace and reconciliation. This sentiment can be fostered but may be the biggest challenge for the fragile peace process, perhaps more than the structural problems it faces. To implement the CAB, peace dividends must be visible to both those that take up arms and those affected by the conflict. MILF leaders have warned of the risk of relapse into violence due to the inability to demonstrate the tangible benefits of the peace process to their groups. Furthermore, the lack of political buy-in of bureaucrats risk dragging the passage of the reiteration of the BBL. Lastly those in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) continue to suffer from discrimination and poverty, seen as drivers of conflict in the first place. Public opinion can sour further if peace dividends are not seen. The new administration’s immediate steps in addressing public opinion surrounding the BBL will be fundamental in any attempts to refile and legislate a future iteration of the CAB.
The way forward
Despite the non-passage of the BBL, it is essential to view the CAB as a stable milestone. It contains goals and commissions (such as normalization) that need to be realized at present, independent of the future of the BBL’s legislation. It serves as the reference for future actions that need to be undertaken in the next presidency. What elements are crucial for keeping the Bangsamoro peace process alive after the 2016 elections?
Firstly, political will has been crucial in the Aquino administration and will remain so as the next administration takes office. Political will, as well as concrete and constructive ideas on moving the peace process forward should be something that voters should consider when electing the next president. Secondly, legislature is equally important, as now more than ever, the constitutionality of the CAB and future iteration of the BBL will be heavily debated. The 2016 elections are also crucial in this regard, given that the members of the lower house and half of the upper house will be up for elections as well. Lastly, some positions at local government are also up for elections this year, including the Governor, Vice Governor and regional assembly in the ARMM. Given these national-level changes, it is important to enhance engagement with local communities and parties in every succeeding step in order to sustain the momentum and grassroots support that is currently given to the CAB and the BBL.
Julia Palmiano Federer is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel and a Program Officer in the Mediation Program at swisspeace. Her doctoral research analyses the role of mediators in norms diffusion, specifically in the contexts of the peace processes in Myanmar and the Philippines. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.