A step towards peace in Mindanao
On October 15, 2012, the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a landmark agreement that marks a watershed in the move towards establishing peace in the troubled regions of Southern Philippines.
The move came after long negotiations between the government and the rebel groups that have been waging an insurgency for independence in Mindanao region. If implemented in letter and spirit, the accord would end a conflict that has raged on for nearly 50 years and be a major step towards a settlement plan that proposes the establishment of a new autonomous Muslim-administered region.
The current Philippines government, which is a coalition headed by Benigno Acquino, has been taking significant steps towards political reforms in the country. One of these steps involves the process of finding a peace settlement for the south, which, if successful, will help in ending the conflict in the troubled regions.
By this agreement, there are hopes that a separate autonomous region for the Bangsamoro people will be created for the first time. This will be like a sub-state within the larger Philippines and will have political and administrative autonomy. The term “Bangsamoro” literally means “Moro nation”. The region comprises the territories of Mindanao, Palawan and parts of the Sulu Archipelago. These areas are recognised as the homeland of the Bangsamoro people who are basically an Islamic community. Islam came to this region as early as the 14th century through traders. In fact, this region remained the last bastion before being conquered by the Spanish, and it was only in the 19th century that the region was incorporated into the Philippines.
The distinction between the current agreement and the agreement that created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is important. The ARMM was initiated in 1989 and came through in 1996 when the government of President Fidel Ramos and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed an agreement by which some regions became autonomous. By the plebiscite of 1989 only four of the regions joined the ARMM. The MNLF, which was the parent organisation, spilt to form the MNLF and the MILF — the distinction between the two groups arose particularly over the degree of autonomy and distance with the Central government in Manila.
The current agreement between the two will go beyond the provisions that were given in the ARMM. In fact the framework agreement, in its 10-point agenda, differs from the ARMM and will be able to provide autonomy to the region on a wider area without affecting the principles of statehood, which the Philippines will continue to safeguard. Territorially, the Bangsamoro will comprise the areas of the ARMM and other areas. There is a provision that those areas that are outlying regions can become part of the new autonomous political entity (NPE), with a petition signed by 10 per cent of the population at any time. This needs to be agreed upon by a plebiscite, which will ensure the outlying areas’ incorporation into the NPE.
The region, following this agreement, will be recognised as a new autonomous political entity, which will replace the ARMM. Under this agreement, the most crucial areas of justice and taxation will be dealt with by local authorities. Issues relating to aspects of defence, foreign affairs, citizenship rights and the issues of finance and currency will be retained by the Central government. The region will also empower itself by following a Basic Law for its people and this will in effect establish civil and political rights of the region’s inhabitants.
Another important aspect of the agreement is that for the first time the region can also implement Shariah law in the southern region. In the context of Shariah law the parties to the agreement also recognise the need to strengthen and expand the Shariah courts, which are applicable only to the Muslim inhabitants of the region. This is a considerable step forward given that the region has witnessed a number of violent communal clashes between the Christian-dominant population and the Muslims in the southern provinces. This law and the move to implement Shariah will go a long way in reassuring the southern region that the Central government is willing to address the threat perceptions of the southern community, especially the issue of their marginalisation.
The agreement also addresses the question of the identity of the Bangsamoro people by recognising that the original inhabitants of the islands of Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago, as well as their descendants, will be accepted as Bangsamoro. This means that pre-colonial inhabitants will get due recognition with their rights.
Another significant feature of the agreement is that revenue and taxation will be decided by the local government, which means devolution of powers to the Bangsamoro community. While there will be some limitations to this power, it provides for fiscal autonomy to the region, which will even have the right to block and resist government sourcing and also bring in funding and sourcing from outside.
Southern Philippines has long suffered a sense of economic deprivation, which peripheral regions usually face within unitary states. The principles of the equitable distribution of the resources is a clause in the agreement and its proper implementation will go a long way in ending economic backwardness of the region.
One of the challenges to the agreement is the implementation process and the period of transition and change. The actual process of transition will be governed by the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which will end the role of the ARMM and move the agreement to its implementation phase. There are several rebel groups that are raising the spectre of an independent Southern Philippines. Both the government and the MILF need to prioritise this framework agreement as the most crucial step for peace in the south. In the long run autonomy within the state is a far better option than separation from it.
The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU