Written by Julia Palmiano Federer
For over five decades, the conflict between armed groups in Mindanao and different iterations of the Philippine government have resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and widespread displacement. Amongst a dizzying array of armed groups in the southern region of the archipelago, the Bangsamoro armed struggle for self-determination led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is one of the longest running armed struggles in the world.
Finding a way to end the armed conflict and bring about sustained peace in the region has stymied generations of Philippine administrations. From Erik Estrada’s deleterious policy of “all out war” against the MILF, to Ninoy Aquino opting for international third parties to facilitate the Bangsamoro peace process, Philippine administrations have used different approaches to deal with the seemingly protracted conflict.
A historic breakthrough occurred in 2014, when after 17 years of negotiations, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was signed between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines under the Aquino administration. However, its implementation was heavily marred by the failed passing of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in Congress (related to constitutional issues) and weak public support outside Mindanao. Despite numerous political and legal challenges that have tested the agreement’s longevity, the election of Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte in May 2016 looked exactly like the kind of push the fraught process needed.
Duterte’s Capital for Peace
Among the more contentious and macabre elements of President Duterte’s explosive tenure, the prospects for peace somehow seemed like a silver lining in his incredibly contested presidency. Citing peace as a priority during his presidential election campaign, Duterte possessed an unprecedented amount of political capital to spend on the Bangsamoro process.
His political capital stems from who he is. He is from Mindanao. He has witnessed and understands the devastating effects of decades of armed conflict in the region and empathises with the struggle for self-determination amongst the Bangsamoro people. More crucially, he holds the trust of both the MILF and MNLF, and as such is endowed with a sense of legitimacy that previous administrations had to laboriously gain.
However, implementation is often seen as the most difficult phase of a peace process, and implementing the CAB is no exception. While the draft BBL faces its second test in Congress and Filipino public opinion writ large, Duterte is moving forward with his visions of the Philippines as a federal state, thereby risking the already beleaguered BBL by complicating matters even further. He has also attempted to revive a peace process with the MNLF, potentially destabilising the trust built with the MILF in legislating the CAB.
Rebuilding Lost Capital
This less than sunny outlook calls into question the long standing notion of paths to peace under the current administration. No longer zero-sum endeavours with a clear victor, peacemaking is diffuse and complex. Peace processes around the world now feature multiple tracks and multiple actors each with a multitude of interests. The Bangsamoro peace process hangs in the balance until the second draft of the BBL passes through Congress. To keep it on the path to true, meaningful, and sustainable peace, the Duterte administration should consider the following as reminders of the delicacy of instigating peace.
Firstly, the Duterte administration should recognise the complexity of the Bangsamoro armed struggle and move forward with caution. Whilst his move to open a second peace panel with the MNLF is an understandable attempt towards inclusivity, opening this track while overseeing the drafting of a new BBL with the MILF and overhauling the country’s entire system of government towards a federalist structure is simply playing with fire. While not shying away from complexity is important, the wrong move could destabilise the delicate balance between the plethora of actors and interests in Mindanao.
Secondly, the Duterte administration should heed the old adage: timing is everything. Sequencing and managing obstacles and roadblocks in peace processes go hand in hand. While it is important not to rush the peace process, it is also important to ensure that the people most affected by the conflicts, both combatants and non-combatants, see peace dividends such as increased security and an improved economic environment. Since the CAB was signed in 2014, MILF fighters have been undergoing a delicate decommissioning and normalisation process. If the BBL is derailed, or the CAB is not adhered to and respected as the cornerstone of implementation, the most disaffected may be more vulnerable to archaic criminality, jihadi radicalisation and other external factors present in the region.
Lastly, the Duterte administration should shore up its tenacity and perseverance in the process. Peace processes are processes. They are full of nuance and happen over decades. Unrealistic milestones are harmful to the process, put extreme pressure on the parties, and do not allow space for deadlocks, obstacles, and crises. It is important to persevere through crises, and not resort to extreme means and actions. This risks destroying the gains made over time. Those tasked with drafting a new BBL need the time, space, and full support of the government to do so. Similarly, outstanding issues that may arise during implementation also need space to be discussed. In essence, negotiations never truly end.
Duterte has the opportunity to lead the country on a path to peace. If he fails, the Philippines will continue to go nowhere with the ongoing insurgencies at play in the islands.
Julia Palmiano Federer is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel and a Programme Officer in the Mediation Programme at Swisspeace. Her 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 the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled “(In)Security in the Philippines.” Image credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons