POST TIME: 11 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Peace in Southern Philippines
Amna Ejaz Rafi

Peace in Southern Philippines

The conflict in Southern Philippines carries serious ethnic, religious, security and humanistic consequences. Back in 1968, the area saw the “Jabidah massacre”, in which Muslims were killed. The petition these Muslim families filed in court was unheard of, and the ultimate reaction was an armed uprising. Muslims form the majority in Mindanao, an area located in Southern Philippines known to be a rich source of nickel mines and fruit farms.

 However the province lacks in development compared to other provinces. There are a couple of political challenges ahead for Manila as it strives to fulfill its the promises to establish an autonomous region in the area most affected by the Marawi City siege and, at the same time, rebuild Marawi City. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has been touted as the framework for undermining jihadist grievances in the southern Philippines by handing over more control to local Muslim leaders. Local leaders, supported by their communities, have repeatedly sought such authority, and since taking office, Duterte has promised to grant it to them.

As national and local leaders struggle to rebuild a political arrangement to address the long-term militant threat in the southern Philippines, Marawi City is undergoing a much more literal reconstruction. Manila has approved more than $300 million to rebuild the city and, as anticipated, the specifics around the reconstruction are causing strife. Five Chinese firms are among the consortium involved in the reconstruction, a point that has led to a measure of protest by residents who are only now finally starting to return home.

Not only does Chinese involvement raise concerns about reconstruction funds benefitting foreign instead of local interests, cooperation with China tends to inflame nationalist sentiments in the Philippines.

The involvement of China — despite it being among the Philippines' largest trading partners and home to the kinds of engineering and construction companies capable of such projects — will create its own political issues. Public backlash against yet another plan for Marawi City has centered on the Philippine military's plans to build a base within the city limits — a move that locals fear would make them a target for further attacks but which the military sees as critical to securing the area. Large reconstruction projects are bound to miss deadlines, run over budgets and offend local sensibilities. If those pressures build on top of a stalled deal for political autonomy, the popular backlash would be potentially more damaging than the improvised bombs and small arms wielded by guerilla jihadist groups But despite optimism that the Marawi City siege would finally attract enough political support to push the law through Congress, the Philippine Senate has missed deadline after deadline since October, threatening to undermine the Muslim leaders who have called for peace, and bolstering the jihadists who espouse that independence is the only option and autonomy under the Philippine government is a false promise. As of now, the Senate is aiming to pass the BBL by early June — around the time of the first anniversary of the May 23 attack on Marawi City that kicked off the five-month-long siege. Duterte, however, appears to be less optimistic about that timeline and is talking about passing it by the end of the year. Symbolically, commemorating the first anniversary of the attack on Marawi City without further progress on the BBL will be awkward; but if the legislation has not passed by the first anniversary of the end of the siege in October, it will severely test the local support Manilla and Duterte have enjoyed so far.

In the words of former Philippines President Benigno Aquino: “in the late 1960s, there was exploitation, unfortunately by Christian businessmen, of a situation where we had Muslim brothers and other indigenous people who were tilling the land but were unlettered, and therefore did not title the land themselves. So the issue of land-grabbing came about”. Finally, what transpires in the southern Philippines over the course of the year will affect the jihadist threat in the rest of southeast Asia. For at least the past two years, the southern Philippines have been the most permissive environment for Southeast Asian militant operations.

As militants were planning and carrying out their attack on Marawi City, Indonesian and Malaysian security forces were at work dismantling other extremist groups such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and disrupting plots linked back to Muhammad Wanndy Jedi before he was killed in Syria. Their success against Islamic State supporters, coupled with the failure of Philippines security forces to dislodge militant groups from Mindanao, helped draw hundreds of foreign fighters into the Marawi City fight. For militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, attacks at home proved too difficult and travel to Iraq and Syria too harrowing — but jihadist networks were more than capable of smuggling fighters from Malaysia's Sabah and Indonesia's Kalimantan provinces into the southern Philippines. As Malaysian and Indonesian authorities continue to disrupt militant plots, they are finding that most schemes have some link back to the Philippines, either in the form of weapons, training, personnel or planning. As long as jihadism simmers in the Philippines, it will continue to pose a terrorist risk to the broader region.

As 2018 wears on, it will be important to watch for signs of increased threats from the southern Philippines. A more active threat in Maguindanao, either in the form of an urban attack or successful raid on security forces would be signs of a stronger BIFF. Likewise, increased aggression from the remnants of the (allegedly) wealthy militant survivors of the Marawi City siege farther north would be an indicator that security forces are struggling to keep them from regrouping. Further piracy activity in the Sulu and Celebes seas, including an eventual successful attack or a kidnapping that draws more attention is likely. Stability in the southern Philippines will also be closely tied to the progress of both the BBL and the rebuilding efforts in Marawi City. While all of these developments are, of course, integral to the security of the southern Philippines, the security situation there will have spillover potential into the rest of Southeast Asia as well. A pacified Mindanao will reduce the threat in Malaysia and Indonesia, while a resurgent militant threat will put more pressure on neighboring security forces to contain it.

Discriminatory practices and coercive suppressive measures heighted local insecurities and aggravated the situation. The locals of the area, also known as Moro, want to be strong hence they need representation in government institutions. Their struggle for an autonomous region is to secure a political say and safeguard their religious and economic freedoms.

The recent political move, in which the Philippines government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is a step towards giving autonomy to Muslim dominated areas in the south.

In the proposed autonomous southern region, the rebels are likely to be merged into state institutions. It is a courageous move on part of the Philippines government to come up with a political settlement, however, only time will tell if the implementation of this law will be fruitful or else fall apart like previous peace initiatives taken in the region.

The writer is a  Amna Ejaz Rafi Researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

The conflict in Southern Philippines has been going on for decades. In the past, several rounds of peace talks have been initiated, the first was the Tripoli accord which was concluded between the Philippines government and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1976. The peace agreement proved useful for the government in securing support from the rebels, but the factions within the rebels splintered MNLF, and a new group – MILF emerged. The government then tried to engage with the newly formed MILF, and a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, was signed in August 2008, in Putrajaya, Malaysia. This was followed by the Manila-MILF pact of October 2012. All these efforts were undertaken to weigh the plausible options for peace in the region, as well as autonomy for Muslim areas. However, efforts failed to materialise on account of legislature procedures, political reasons and at times armed clashes. In 2015, a counter terror operation was launched in the South, in which, dozens of Philippines police special forces were killed.

The situation in Southern Philippines, despite peace initiatives has continued to be tense, and time has only complicated the security situation. The MILF and MNLF are not the only rebel groups, rather, extremist factions including Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), National Islamic Command Council (NICC), Misuari Breakaway Group (MBG or MILF renegades)are operational in the area. Thereby, a new peace initiative needs to cater for the nuanced ground reality that now exists.

The argument, that the government while finalising peace agreements failed to give due consideration to the population’s demands, cannot be denied altogether. Meanwhile, divisions within the rebel groups, corruption and mismanagement have also hindered peace efforts. In particular, while resolving a conflict, the decision made should be reflective of the majority. The lead rebel group is representing a few, with no consent from the population; hence the decision reached could prompt an uprising. “It is very difficult for them to exist minus the support of some people in the area,” he said, adding: “If the people support the result of the peace process, there is no choice for these small groups except to join.”

Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, agreed that the new law could bring calm to the south by requiring the Moro Islamic Liberation Front “to stop fighting the Philippines through military struggle.”

“But it will not automatically bring peace,”  Banlaoi said, stressing that the key to reducing the violence was making sure that the front followed through with its promise to disarm and decommission its thousands of combatants.

Referring to the law, he said, “The B.O.L. is not a magic pill that can give a solution to multifaceted problems of armed conflicts” in the region. The legislation mandates the expansion of an autonomous region that would be led initially by a “transitional authority” composed mostly of former fighters before eventually being governed by its own parliament.

The region is intended to supersede an earlier autonomous zone, composed of five provinces, that was considered to have benefited only a small number of Muslim families and that had been wracked by violence. The new area is expected to be larger and better funded.

Under the new plan, the government would retain police and military forces in the area, combatants would lay down their weapons in phases, and six of the guerrilla group’s camps would be converted to “productive civilian communities,” according to the leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim.

In this context, the role of institutions is equally important, devolved on an institutional level, should be reflective of the entire population rather than an influential segment of society. Thus, it is clear for both the Muslims and the Philippine’s government, that the path towards peace will not be smooth, as major divides exist between rebel groups. Moreover poverty and under development are rampant which highlights the necessity of prioritising economic empowerment. The locals of the area need to be provided with opportunities and job incentives, starting from employment in government departments. On the other hand, if the government continues to sign peace accords with the rebel factions yielding no results, then this may further antagonize the security situation.