Over 120,000 people dead by the last major peace deal in 1996 and three “all-out-wars” since. Up to 140 million Euros spent yearly by the state. Over half a million citizens displaced since mid-2008. This is the situation on Mindanao in the Philippines where the Moros have been fighting for an independent Muslim state as their homeland (Bangsamoro) since 1972. Despite a complex situation with Christian settlers, influential local strongmen and proliferating private armies, traditional Muslim datus and jihadist terrorist cells, in October 2012 President Benigno Aquino III signed a peace accord with the primary insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While many obstacle remain, it is possible that this could lead to a permanent and pervasive peace deal before Aquino leaves power in 2016.
The conflict goes back to Spanish colonial times, however intensified since Philippines independence in 1946 with the state encouraging Christian Filipinos from densely populated regions to migrate to the South. Here the settlers were given land as part of this internal migration process and resources were systematically exploited. In this unchecked environment the violence between the indigenous population and the new immigrants grew and by 1972 a full-scale civil war broke out. Today the Christians living in Mindanao are the majority in many places and have successfully marginalised the Moros, some Muslim provinces being the poorest in the country and having the highest rates of illiteracy.
The violent conflict was first fought mainly by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) with whom a historic peace deal for more autonomy was signed in 1996, however, neglecting to include the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group of the MNLF. Violence continued between the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continuing the Moro effort for independence. Nonetheless, relatively soon the MILF met with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and started negotiating a new peace deal felt to be more acceptable than the one signed with the MNLF. Talks proceeded and broke down in regular intervals with “all-out-wars” ensuing in 1997, 2000 and 2003.
In October 2012, President Benigno Aquino III signed a long-expected peace accord reached between his negotiators and the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). This accord seeks to create a new regional entity, Bangsamoro, to replace the corrupt and dysfunctional Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The agreement is a major step on the way to a comprehensive peace deal which Aquino hopes to have in place by 2016 when his single, six-year-term ends.
Despite the positive media echo hailing this as the end of the 40-year armed conflict and the praise by foreign diplomats around the world, this consensus between the two negotiating teams does not reflect the sentiment of all actors within the MILF, nor in government, particularly local government. Both sides will have their work cut out if this agreement is to be implemented and there is to be a permanent peace deal in four years time.
While this peace agreement is likely to experience little protest from the national level, as Aquino enjoys stable support, it is less certain whether the actors at the national level will want to use their political clout to force local Christian leaders from the region into line.
As the peace process has proceeded and it has become increasingly clear that the MILF has given up its aspirations of an independent Mindanao, some of the more fundamentalist, nationalist commanders within the organisation have started breaking away. Most prominently, MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato split from the group and founded the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While this group is looking relatively weak without Kato's leadership, the MILF is strongly divided and it is not unlikely that other split-off groups could emerge to continue fighting for an independent state.
Furthermore, the prospects for long-term peace are overshadowed by the question on whether the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, establishing the ARMM, will cooperate within the new framework of the Bangsamoro.
The central tenet of the Moro cause is the demand for an independent nation for Mindanao. MILF and other Moro organisations assert that the Moros have an historic right to self-determination, also enshrined in international law and the Philippines constitution, itself so often cited as upholding the territorial integrity of the Philippines nation. Moro independence activists argue that it is not seen as dismembering the Philippines or taking away its sovereignty because the Bangsamoro never actually should have been part of the Philippines. “We have been a civilized people long before the Spaniards came. We were a sovereign nation 448 years before the Philippines even became one” (Hataman 2008); the Moros feel they are just taking back what should have been theirs all along.
Losing not only their political sovereignty but also much of their ancestral lands and suffering attempts to assimilate them when the Philippines became independent from the United States, is the foundation of a feeling of grave injustice. The fact that the Moros are to have a certain form of homeland is indisputable in peace negotiations; however, in the newest peace accord the agreement envisages an autonomous region within the current Philippines state.
Hataman, Mujiv S. 2008. "On being a Moro and a Muslim." Wyzemoro Blogs. 07.08.2008. http://blog.wyzemoro.com/on-being-a-moro-and-a-muslim/.
When the Christian settlers originally came to Mindanao in the post-World War II government scheme, they were rewarded with land holdings that had been in communal Moro holding. This process has led to an economic marginalisation of the Moros on the island and some Christian landowners have become powerful businessmen with large private armies to back up their economic clout.
However, solving the problem of rightful ownership of the land is no longer clear-cut. The Christians are no longer the original settlers but their descendants, complicating the matter as they have inherited their land rights legitimately and cannot be held accountable for the deeds of their fore-fathers. The Moros on the other hand contest their rights to this land claiming that it was unrightfully taken away from the Muslim population and claiming ownership rights on some tracts of land.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), having broken away in 1976 and formally established eight years later under the leadership of Hashim Salamat. Originally the break occurred due to the MNLF leadership’s preparedness to accept a degree of autonomy for Mindanao rather than full independence. This division was fortified when the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 establishing an autonomous region within the Philippines state. Today, the MILF leadership has moderated its demands and in October 2012 signed a peace accord with the government detailing a new autonomous region, again short of independence.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been a major player in the Southern conflict since hostilities began. While the AFP has obviously sustained many casualties and fatalities in the course of the hostilities, the status quo of enduring war in Mindanao has allowed the military budget to remain very large even since democratisation. Furthermore, Mindanao has become a place where military men can fast-track their careers. Thus there are some incentives for maintaining the status quo for the army
Over 120,000 people have died in the conflict’s 40-year span, and even since the MNLF peace agreement in 1996, three “all-out-wars” have occurred. The last bout of extreme fighting in 2008 displaced over half a million citizens. Furthermore, the conflict costs the Filipino state five to ten billion Philippine Pesos (around 72-144 million Euros) every year, and this is not even counting the loss of economic potential from the region if it were living and working in peace.
Violence occurs primarily as clashes between the army and the insurgent MILF, and while there have been terrorist attacks in the past, MILF distances itself strongly from terrorist activity today. Connections between MILF and the jihadist criminal organisation Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are seen as distant and widely irrelevant, although the ASG’s use of kidnapping-for-ransom and terrorist attacks such as beheadings continue to destabilise the region, particularly on Basilan and Jolo islands.
A final element to the violent mix is found in the presence of large private armies owned by influential local strongmen. These politicians with huge business empires reinforce their power by controlling the local police and holding their own, sometimes relatively large armies. While President Aquino has pledged to eradicate private armies by the end of his term and he has had some first successes, it is unlikely that the most influential private armies will be able to be dissolved in the near future.
The prospects for a non-violent transformation of the Mindanao conflict are looking positive since the October 2012 peace accord. Long-term peace may come should both sides be able to rally their constituencies and ensure that any members of their own groups be integrated well into a peace-time structure, rather than splintering off and seeking either judicial or violent alternatives to this accord. Most people in Mindanao have now come to accept that violent confrontation has not helped anyone in this conflict and that the only way to bring stability and prosperity is through non-violent conflict transformation at the negotiating table
Furthermore, the Philippines peace process has demonstrated many innovative ways of making and ensuring peace during long and difficult negotiations. For instance, the involvement of an international contact group, including both local and international civil society groups and foreign government representatives, gave the process an additional credibility. Also, local and international monitoring teams have been used for several years to scrutinise the implementation of ceasefires. Whenever a violation of the ceasefire agreements occurs, these monitoring teams fly in immediately to assess the situation. Their subsequent reports allocate blame for the occurrence and then leave the army and the MILF to then deal with the violators internally. These and other mechanisms have been very successful in producing a conducive environment for peace talks.