A peace agreement signed between the Manila government and insurgents in Mindanao can either end a decades-long conflict or provide the basis for a deeper conflagration that would affect regional stability.
Ryan Clarke, Asia Programme, RUSI
The southern Philippines has long suffered from chronic instability that dates back to the country’s colonial period. Over time that unrest eventually translated into an insurgency. Fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were originally part of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which formed in the late 1960s. The MNLF demanded an independent Islamic state for the predominantly Muslim Bangsamoro people and used violence to forward their aims. Manila consistently ruled out this possibility and sent troops to the southern regions and intense fighting ensued. Manila initiated peace talks in 1976, a move that was eventually reciprocated by the MNLF, much to the dismay of some of its own members. The MILF was formed in 1981 when Salamat Hashem and his followers split from the MNLF because of the MNLF’s refusal to continue to engage in armed hostilities and to negotiate with Manila. Due to this fractionalisation, violence has remained a daily fact of life in the southern Philippines though there appeared to be an opportunity for change when negotiators from both sides signed an agreement in Kuala Lumpur in July 2008 that was set to meet many of the MILF’s demands.
Negotiations Break Down
The negotiations that have taken place in recent weeks between Manila and the Mindanao-based MILF appear to have run into a major hurdle after the Supreme Court overturned an agreement that would have seen the expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the granting of greater control over local resources. Following this ruling, MILF units stormed several villages in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato provinces, burned houses and shops, killed civilians, and caused considerable internal displacement. Unsurprisingly, Manila’s patience with the actions of the MILF is wearing thin, especially as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s approval ratings continue to sag during a time of considerable economic difficulty, rice shortages, and allegations of corruption.
What is clear is that at least two rebel commanders are not following central directives and are in a position to conduct attacks within the immediate proximity of the proposed capital of the ARMM. Thus far, the MILF central leadership appears rudderless and unable to rein in these units and discipline them. This contrasts sharply with other insurgencies in Asia, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that often deal with dissent or insubordination quickly and brutally and maintain consistent command and control over their movement. Further, the ability of these renegade units to enhance co-operation with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – a group linked to Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) that engages in terrorist activities as well as kidnapping – and possibly even JI’s bombing faction is problematic as links are often solidified by a shared ethnicity, language, and/or tribal affiliation.
The swift and harsh response taken by the Philippines armed forces against the MILF fighters, which were believed to have numbered around some one thousand men, in occupied villages demonstrates that the civilian and military leadership in Manila are in no mood to cede ground or to only negotiate with a portion of the MILF. Manila’s willingness to declare the complete suspension of the peace negotiations with the MILF likely is a testimony to the state’s exasperation with the entire process. Such a sentiment has been accelerated by domestic politics, economic stagnation, and the potential for a resurgence of militancy in Southeast Asia as a whole.
Despite the fact that the MILF is an insurgent group by most definitions with an attainable goal of increasing the autonomy of the areas of the southern Philippines that are inhabited by the predominantly Muslim Bangsamoro people, segments of the group have resorted to terror attacks in the past when the balance began to tip too much in Manila’s favour. In addition, although the MILF has also been averse (at least publicly) to allowing JI or ASG members to use their training camps or to engage in joint ventures with either group for fear of jeopardising their peace talks with Manila and their larger strategic aims, this cannot be viewed as a permanent reality. A stagnated or derailed peace process combined with an offensive by the Filipino security forces, could radically change this current MILF mindset. Such an event could not only plunge Mindanao and the surrounding areas into chaos, but would also likely have a knock-on effect on militancy in Indonesia, a phenomenon that has largely been on the wane in the country due to improved intelligence sharing, access to more advanced technology, Western assistance, the effective methods used by Indonesian interrogators, and a more creative, humanistic rehabilitation programme for captured militants. However, progress is fragile and current gains can easily be reversed.
It would be highly unwise for Manila to walk away from the negotiating table at this stage or to allow short-term political considerations to overshadow the negotiations that aim to end this decades-long conflict that has, by some estimates, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. It is in Manila’s interest to help the MILF identify and clamp down on its rebellious units as opposed to taking steps to isolate the entire movement. Breaking off relations with MILF will be counterproductive and will be detrimental not only to the security of the Philippines, but also to regional stability. Although political posturing during a period of low approval ratings is inevitable and the MILF is also likely somewhat hesitant over negotiating with an administration that may not be at the helm in the near future, it is imperative that an open line of communication be maintained. Failure to do so could see an unprecedented level of communal violence in Mindanao, an intensification of clashes between MILF cadres and the security forces, terror attacks in the northern Philippines, and further co-operation or even consolidation between the MILF and other militant outfits. It could also provide JI’s bombing faction with an area to recruit, train, procure arms, gain additional battlefield experience, and to establish long-lasting strategic partnerships. This was readily witnessed during the sectarian violence that gripped Indonesia’s Ambon Island shortly after the fall of Suharto. It would be naive to assume that history cannot repeat itself.
The author is completing a doctorate at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and is currently working with RUSI’s Asia Security Programme