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October 10, 2012

Observers Caution Long Road Ahead for Philippine-Muslim Peace Deal

by Simone Orendain

People in the southwestern region of the Philippines are watching closely as the government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group finalize details of a peace accord.  The anticipated deal comes after a nearly 40-year insurgency in the impoverished south left more than 120,000 people dead.

The guidelines for peace between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front call for the creation of a political entity to be named “Bangsamoro.” The term refers to all natives (regardless of faith) of the southwestern region of the Philippines where most of the country’s Muslims live. The Muslims believe this area of Mindanao to be their ancestral domain and it has been at the heart of their fight for self-determination.

Abel Moya is a Mindanao-based conflict resolution analyst. He says the name alone is cause for optimism.

“This is indeed a historic step towards achieving lasting peace in Mindanao, precisely because the government now recognizes that there is such a thing as ‘Bangsamoro',” said Moya.

The new entity gives natives of the region the Bangsamoro identity, even as they remain Philippine citizens. However, Moya says people on the ground must keep a watchful eye on how it will take shape.

The plan is for Bangsamoro to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was established 16 years ago, after an earlier peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Front, a smaller Muslim group. In his speech Sunday to announce the impending peace accord, President Benigno Aquino called the ARMM a “failed experiment.”

“Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system," he said.  "And, those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun.”

The ARMM, which encompasses five provinces on the shores of the Mindanao Sea, is an area of immense poverty, known as a hotbed for violence.

International Alert Philippine Director Francisco Lara says, in the early years of the ARMM, its leaders became overwhelmed by the challenges of trying to build economic stability.  The area reverted to the historical practice of having elite families - both Christian and Muslim - governing. He says now, this new peace accord is seen as a threat to them.

“They feel that, as this new political entity gets established, the basic law is written down, that their power will diminish. That’s where probably you’ll find some eruption of conflict,” said Lara.

Peace workers say this power struggle is expected because local leaders will likely see their territories and corresponding government funding shrink. But Lara says this is just one challenge. He anticipates that, as the insurgency ends, there will be an escalation of in-fighting, what he calls “horizontal violence.”

“For the explosion of fights between families and clans now, between those who are benefited by the peace agreement and those who aren’t, between those who have contacts and connections with the new governors versus those who [don’t]," he said.

The government says the Moro Islamic Liberation Front specifically requested that the transition to Bangsamoro be completed by 2016, when President Aquino’s term ends. This means the area will have to be specifically defined through a plebiscite, a transition government put in place, all political commitments ironed out and disarmament completed at the end of the three years.

Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities Director Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan says the preliminary agreement opens the door to humanitarian investments for development projects. But he says three years to forge lasting peace is not enough time.

“So many scenarios might happen along the way," said Sinsuat. "What if in the final peace agreement, it will turn out that only one province or even less would want to participate [in] the Bangsamoro political entity? Now that could be a big challenge.”

Lidasan says “the devil is in the details.” And, provisions such as decommissioning arms will pose more challenges because even some members of the MILF’s armed wing feel the need to defend themselves against breakaway factions.

The group is contending with the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who are seen as a spoiler to this agreement. There is also the Abu Sayyaf - a notoriously violent group that long ago dropped any ideological aspirations in favor of kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and deadly bombings.

Lara says the MILF will have to demonstrate their ability to keep peace and order and work with national government to have these elements under control.

The peace workers say the two parties’ transparency throughout the negotiation process and willingness to seek input from people directly affected by an agreement are crucial to the plan’s success.