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Bangsamoro – The Stony Path to Peace

Posted on 19 May 2017 by cbcs_mike

Mediating in conflicts between cultural, religious and ethnic groups in the Bangsamoro region, which sometimes persist across generations, is one of the key tasks of civil society organisations. Source: Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society Inc.

Mediating in conflicts between cultural, religious and ethnic groups in the Bangsamoro region, which sometimes persist across generations, is one of the key tasks of civil society organisations. Source: Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society Inc.

[The Authors: Elmar Noé has been a desk officer in the Asia Department of MISEREOR – the German Catholic Bishops’ Organisation for Development Cooperation – since 2002. Since 2008 he has been responsible for MISEREOR’s cooperation with partner organisations in the Philippines.
Elisabeth Strohscheidt has been a MISEREOR desk officer for peace research and conflict transformation since 2012. Prior to that she spent almost 10 years as a desk officer for human rights in what was then MISEREOR’s department for development policy issues.]

In late 2015, the highly promising peace process in the Muslim-dominated regions of Mindanao suffered a severe setback. The Congress of the Philippines delayed its vote on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) for so long that it was no longer possible to reach a decision during President Aquino’s time in office. The Muslim population in Mindanao in particular were profoundly disappointed by the failure to pass the BBL. The fact that this disappointment did not result in violence was thanks largely to the vigorous efforts of civil society actors. Throughout the years of negotiation they kept working to make the process transparent. This made a significant contribution towards the acceptance of the process among the population.

Mediating in conflicts between cultural, religious and ethnic groups in the Bangsamoro region, which sometimes persist across generations, is one of the key tasks of civil society organisations. Source: Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society Inc.

Mediating in conflicts between cultural, religious and ethnic groups in the Bangsamoro region, which sometimes persist across generations, is one of the key tasks of civil society organisations. Source: Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society Inc.

Another reason why violence did not ensue is that large sections of the parties to the conflict – both Muslim groups and elements within the army – have grown tired of war. Furthermore, during the years of negotiation a solid foundation of trust has arisen between fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the army. As a result, ceasefires that were agreed did hold even in critical situations, and the two sides were able to establish working channels of communication. The fact that following the failure of the BBL in Congress the two sides’ negotiating delegations very quickly resumed the dialogue was an important step in at least consolidating the results of the negotiations achieved until that point.

The election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines raised hopes in many quarters that he could bring fresh and positive momentum to the peace process. Eight months after Duterte took up office, however, the obstacles along the stony path to peace are now becoming evident.

On 7 November President Duterte signed Executive Order No. 8, which extended the mandate of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC). With new and more members, the BTC is now mandated to revise the BBL by July 2017, in time for Duterte’s next State of the Nation Address. The revision will not only take account of the interests of hitherto neglected groups; it will also respond to criticisms and queries raised by various Representatives and Senators concerning the existing draft of the BBL.

Obstacles and stumbling blocks in the process

It took over three months for the 21 members of the BTC to be appointed on 10 February 2017. Ten
members were nominated by the government and eleven by the MILF. The precise details of the selection process are poorly transparent, however, even for those on the inside. While the MILF clearly nominated members from amongst its own ranks, the government also introduced members of groups that had not previously been represented on the BTC or involved in the peace negotiations, such as the so-called Sema faction of the MNLF, as well as representatives of local government units, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Christian settlers and the non-islamised indigenous peoples. While this diversity in the makeup of the BTC is certainly a step towards greater inclusivity, it also harbours risks. It is not clear, for instance, to what extent the appointed members are accepted as representatives of their respective groups. The expanded and newly configured group is also likely to find it difficult to reach joint positions, particularly given the time pressure that exists.

While the MNLF’s Sema faction is willing to participate in the current further negotiations based on the BBL, other factions of the MNLF reject this. The government has therefore embarked on parallel negotiations with the MNLF faction centred around its founder Nur Misuari, which build on its negotiations to implement the Final Peace Agreement of 1996. It is now envisaged that the Nur Misuari faction of the MNLF will produce its own draft autonomy law by July 2017.

The most likely outcome of these two parallel negotiation processes is that both drafts will be submitted to the Congress in July, at which point the Congress will then need to merge them into a single draft. This is an extremely ambitious undertaking with manifold risks. Right now it is an entirely open question how the population of the Bangsamoro region and the parties to the conflict would react to a compromise that might represent the lowest common denominator, and omit key elements of the 2015 draft of the BBL.

One of President Duterte’s key aims is a constitutional reform designed to bolster federal structures. This might also jeopardise the acceptance of a revised BBL. Observers fear that those elements in the existing draft BBL which some members of the Congress categorised as unconstitutional will be removed from the revised draft, to be addressed later in the context of a constitutional reform. These include among other things territorial issues, issues of sovereignty over particular natural resources, as well as issues of domestic security and the possibility of taking out international loans. If such issues are excluded from the negotiations and deferred until they can be discussed in the context of federal structures, then in practice this could lead to the deferral of decision-making on important components of the BBL for an indefinite period. It is to be feared that such a delay would lead to disappointment, and create fertile ground for further radicalisation in the Bangsamoro region.

Even now the region is already experiencing an increase in the frequency of attacks by radical Islamist groups and terrorist organisations such as the Maute group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Abu Sayyaf. Further growth in the strength of these groups could pose a serious threat to the peace process. Partner organisations of MISEREOR in Mindanao identify as the driving force of radicalisation among young Muslims not foreign influence (wielded e.g. by IS or other extreme Sunni elements), but rather frustration with a protracted peace process marred by setbacks.
Moreover, violent conflicts between clans and family feuds (Rido) that persist across generations remain a serious threat to peace.

Mechanisms and institutions providing support

If the peace process is to succeed it is crucial that Congress Representatives in Manila and the population at large are brought on board with the process – even though this will be difficult, given the aforementioned time pressure. Among others, the peace tables currently being set up in various regions (North Cotabato, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao have been mentioned) can and should support this. So far little is known about how these peace tables will actually be organised or how they will operate. As of mid-February, they had still not been officially set up. This much would seem clear: it is envisaged that they will serve as public sounding boards – also for those groups and sections of the population that are not represented on the BTC or in the peace negotiations.

Furthermore, the BTC will be supported by a kind of advisory body – the Bangsamoro Assembly. The assembly will advise the BTC on formulating the new draft law, and ensure the participation of more sections of the population and stakeholder groups in the Bangsamoro region. Like the peace tables, this assembly has also yet to be set up. Both processes, the assembly and the peace tables, could help support the inclusivity of the process. It remains unclear how this could be achieved in just five months, however.

Known and proven international mechanisms to support the peace process – such as the International Contact Group, the International Monitoring Team, the Independent Decommissioning Body and the Tripartite Monitoring Team – remain in place, at least on paper. At present they are inactive, however, and there is no clear indication as to their new role or current mandate. This is because, officially, the task is now no longer to hammer out the peace agreement, but to implement it. We must also assume that under Duterte, the Filipino government’s appreciation of international monitoring and advisory mechanisms will decline perceptibly. This does not make them any less important, however. On the contrary. Particularly during the current transitional phase the mechanisms for monitoring ceasefire agreements and for supporting ‘normalisation’ are of paramount importance for preventing any repeated flare-ups of violence – or documenting them when they do occur. This applies to both international and local mechanisms alike.

Civil society in the Philippines – A key factor for peace

In this fragile situation it is especially important that civil society organisations continue their work to shed light on the context and causes of the conflict, and provide information on the peace process. Social media are playing an increasingly important role in this setting. The peace talks are only likely to succeed if broad sections of the population are brought on board. The many civil society organisations large and small in the Philippines that have spent not just years but decades working for peace without becoming disheartened deserve recognition, respect and support. They have played a crucial role in ensuring that more people in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region are now able to live in peace, and that despite numerous setbacks there are now prospects for lasting peace.

Particularly regarding the attitudes of the Christian population in the Bangsamoro region, it is important to create an understanding of the fact that one key concern of the Muslim population of Mindanao is gaining acknowledgement of the injustice suffered – rather than retribution or restoration of the pre-colonial status quo. The Christian population are highly mistrustful of the peace process, and very anxious regarding possible outcomes of the negotiations that might marginalise them. The Catholic Church in particular must exercise a high degree of responsibility here. This is why the Oblate Missionary Foundation (OMF) has launched dialogue processes in many Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Cotabato, one of the regions of Mindanao hardest hit by the civil war. In this setting OMF has found that preconceptions can already be reduced by familiarising the Christian inhabitants of Mindanao with the true history of the region. So far this has not even been taught in schools. Nor are the Congress Representatives in faraway Manila, who will take the final decisions on draft legislation such as the BBL, aware of this history. Modifying curricula accordingly would therefore be a relatively simple and obvious measure to counter the formation of prejudices – which underpin and foment structural and physical violence.


During the election campaign Duterte had promised the Muslim population reparation. He comes from Mindanao himself. This was one important reason why so many people in Mindanao voted for him. ‘With his huge political and social capital, President Duterte can achieve a great deal. He can make the peace process succeed – or fail.’ So we were told recently by one of MISEREOR’s Muslim partners. There is now considerable reason to doubt, however, whether Duterte really understands the Moros’ desire for acknowledgement of the injustice they have suffered, and it remains to be seen how strong his commitment to a lasting peace in the Bangsamoro region and the whole of Mindanao really is. Consequently, Duterte’s recent decision to end the peace talks with the National Democratic Front (which had been resumed with such enthusiasm) as soon as the process hit difficulties, his lifting of the unilaterally declared ceasefire and his immediate declaration of ‘total war’ against the New People’s Army (NPA), give grounds for concern. By taking these steps he has also de facto accepted the more recent escalation in violence in parts of Mindanao. The fact that Duterte also tramples on human rights and that his so-called war on drugs has already cost thousands of people their lives risks brutalising society and making violence even more socially acceptable as a seemingly legitimate means of resolving conflicts. In this connection, the director of a Catholic partner organisation of MISEREOR in the Cotabato region has urgently requested MISEREOR to continue providing support and solidarity. ‘Please continue supporting us [...] in whatever way you can. Ultimately we are all human beings, and all members of the same family of humankind. [...] We must work together to make this world a peaceful and beautiful place in which each and every one of us can be happy.’ As well as greater mutual understanding, institutional reforms, structural change and greater social cohesion will be key to the success of the Bangsamoro peace process. We must continue working together to achieve these goals.

[This article was originally published in Germany through German language and translated into English by John D Cochrane in cooperation with MISEREOR]

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