Peace At Last In Mindanao?

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It seemed last weekend as if peace had broken out in the southern Philippines. Decades of negotiations had brought forth an agreement between the warring parties. Perhaps so; perhaps not.

For a place so often in the news, the southern Philippines is not well known and its situation is largely misunderstood. Most recently, its problems have been incorporated into the global war on terror. The dreaded kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf Group was used by the United States to present Mindanao as a haven for terrorists. Recent news of the breakthrough in the long struggle for peace has to be fitted into a troubled history and a hotly contested present. This largest island in the southern part of the archipelago, which is only the size of Tasmania, has over 25 million people. The population includes a Moro (Muslim) minority, a majority of Christian settlers from northern Luzon and elsewhere, and a number of indigenous lumad tribes.

These groups get on together quite well, but the political elites point to religio-cultural fissures in civil society to keep the separatist impulse in check. No opportunity is lost to demonise attempts at change. Many outside observers — including Australian military advisers — emphasise Islamic extremism but grinding poverty, disenfranchisement, and a collapse in law and governance better explain the crisis in the south.

The Moros have been fighting for independence since Spanish times. The current separatist struggle was begun by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and has continued under the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Attempts to secure a breakaway state have moderated to demands for self-determination and greater autonomy.

An Autonomous Region of Moro Mindanao (ARMM) was actually established, but it is weak and hopelessly corrupt. It encompasses several provinces of western Mindanao and the offshore islands of Basilan and Sulu as well as a number of cities, a patchwork of predominantly Islamic entities. It has not been very effective. The Tri-Peoples of Mindanao — Muslim, Christian, and lumad — feel ignored by the central authorities and share many common grievances against what they deem to be Imperial Manila.

These communities are frequently branded as violent and troublesome, but much of the so-called Mindanao Problem derives from government mismanagement and divisive action by outsiders, including the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The island remains one of the most highly militarised places in the world, with half the AFP and nearly all its Special Forces based there. The country’s leading newspaper has described the situation as one of "unabated butchery". Hundreds of thousands of rural folk survive as bakwits or evacuees, driven from their farms by the constant fighting and counter-insurgency operations. The people live under the tyranny of an out-of-control army which enjoys total impunity.

Manila governs by proxy, relying upon the military, vigilantes, death squads, and warlords like the Ampatuan clan, which perpetrated the horrific Maguindanao Massacre three years ago. If Mindanao is indeed lawless, it is because brute force and rapacious developmentalism by external players have largely destroyed traditional forms of governance.

Mindanao has consequently slipped into poverty and despair. It has nine of the nation’s poorest provinces. In this context, the peace process between the administration of President Noynoy Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is only one part of a broader effort to repair this damaged island. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already warned of the hurdles ahead.

For the moment, the Aquino2 government has announced little more than an agreement about an agreement. A road map or statement of general principles has been approved for establishing a new autonomous region. To be called Bangsamoro, it will replace the clapped out ARMM. The change will be endorsed or otherwise by a local plebiscite. This latter is certain to provoke fierce campaigning and much bloodshed.

The chances of success for this most recent proposal must be weighed against the tremendous problems afflicting Mindanao as well as the ill will and connivance of many powerful stakeholders opposed to fair and equitable solutions, especially in regard to land reform and the contentious issue of Ancestral Domain (a form of native title which works against the claims of settlers, mining companies, and agribusiness enterprises).

A group of so-called Spoilers led by Zamboanga Mayor Celso Lobregat and former North Cotabato governor Manny Piñol destroyed an important attempt at peace in 2008; there can be no doubt that they will try again. The AFP uses bombing campaigns and standover tactics to protect themselves and their big business clients from any outbreak of peace. Other self-serving interests also oppose a settlement of Mindanao’s problems so moves towards a political settlement are often accompanied by atrocities and heightened levels of violence. Sadly, this will likely happen again, especially as there is a general election scheduled for May 2013.

Chief GPH negotiator Marivic Leonen emphasized that the parties have an opportunity to prove their sincerity, an arrogant assertion because over the long haul Manila itself has been found most wanting in this regard (whatever else, government agencies never have the will or the funds to meet their promises, a major reason for the failure of the Ramos government’s 1996 accord with the MNLF). Right now, a bankrupt regime is dealing with a poverty-stricken populace.

Will peace be achieved in Mindanao? Certainly not if everyone accepts this announcement of an alleged road map between the GPH and the MILF as an end in itself. And 2016 remains a long way away. Initial enthusiasm and statements of support obscure how little has been achieved to date. The search for a political settlement in the southern Philippines has a long history; it will undoubtedly have a difficult future. Maverick landowners and other entrenched stakeholders can stir up fears of religious war in a moment, protecting commercial interests by tearing communities apart and driving them from their ancestral land. These Spoilers are already lying in wait to ambush this latest — and weakest — compromise.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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