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Peace Process in Southern Philippines: Re-assessing Prospects and Challenges?

Date: 19 October 2012 (Friday)
Time: 3 – 4.30pm
Venue: RSIS, NTU, Nanyang Avenue, Block S3.1, Level B3 (New Wing), Seminar Room 2.
Speaker: Dr Steven Rood, Country Representative, Philippines and Pacific Island Nations, The Asia Foundation
Chairperson: Assoc. Prof. Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)


In October 2012, the Filipino government reached a peace agreement with the country’s largest insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending the four-decade insurgency in the troubled southern Philippines. The Moro ethnic group has been striving for an independent Muslim country for decades. According to the agreement, an Islamic autonomous region, Bangsamoro, will be established in Mindanao to replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The long-running conflict between government forces and insurgents has caused high civilian casualties and large-scale displacement. In view of the serious damage caused by the tensions, the peace agreement was hailed as a landmark event in the efforts to achieve lasting peace in the region.

Nevertheless, it also should be noted that the agreement is preliminary, with many details yet to be finalised. The negotiations for the deal were long and full of ups and downs. Some foreign governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also played an important role as brokers between the Philippine government and the MILF.

The presentation reviewed highlights of the peace negotiations, the evolution of the situation on the ground, and the role of foreign actors in the process. The speaker also discussed the difficulties in turning the framework deal into a fully-fledged agreement and the prospects of peace and development in Mindanao.



Prior to the recent peace agreement, there had been attempts by the Philippine government and Moro insurgents to resolve the protracted conflict. There was a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another insurgent group, in 1996. The government was also involved in negotiations with the MILF in 1997. However, these efforts did not ultimately lead to peace.

The momentum for the current peace agreement started in 2001 when the then Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad suggested to Philippine President Gloria Arroyo that Malaysia could help facilitate peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF. In 2008, the two sides nearly reached an agreement, known as the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. However, this turned out to be another failed attempt. Moreover, the peace process was interrupted by the outbreak of fighting between the two sides, which led to massive civilian displacement.

Peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF resumed in 2009, this time driven by informal and unofficial communication. This round of negotiations saw greater international involvement. Malaysia has long been involved in the peace process. However, due to a dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah, there were suspicions regarding the motivation behind Malaysia’s involvement. As a result, an International Contact Group (ICG) was established in December 2009. The ICG consisted of four countries (Japan, Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and four NGOs (Muhammadiyah, The Asia Foundation, the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Conciliation Resources).

ICG representatives attended and observed the negotiations concerning governance. They also contributed to the peace process by offering technical assistance according to their respective expertise. For instance, Muhammadiyah advised MILF on delivery of social services while Conciliation Resources offered opinions on future disarmament by referring to the experiences of armed groups such as the Irish Republican Army. Eventually, the Philippine government and the MILF came up with a framework agreement in mid-October 2012.

The framework agreement represents a significant step towards achieving lasting peace in Mindanao. However, there are still many uncertainties that need to be settled before the signing of the final agreement and the establishment of the autonomous region. For instance, division of power and wealth sharing have yet to be fully settled. The two sides need to finalise the power reserved to the autonomous region and the division of tax and revenues from oil and gas exploration by mid-November 2012.

The transition process also faces many challenges. A transition commission, comprising representatives from both sides, will become operational in early 2013. The commission will draft a basic law for Bangsamoro and discuss whether a change of constitution is necessary to accommodate the basic law. The MILF believes that it is necessary to change the constitution to ensure that the autonomy of Bangsamoro will remain unchanged in the future, while the government regards it as unnecessary.

The basic law will be submitted to the Philippine Congress for approval in 2015. If the basic law is deemed to be inconsistent with the constitution, the constitution will have to be changed, which will complicate the passage of the Bangsamoro basic law. The provisional leadership nominated by the MILF will gradually take over administrative power from the current local administration in the run-up to a general election in 2016.

The normalisation of people’s life is also part of the commission’s responsibility. Normalisation in the context of Mindanao is construed more broadly than demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of the militants. It includes the establishment of a local police force and the formulation of a local development policy. According to the framework agreement, law enforcement activities will be transferred from government forces to the police force of Bangsamoro. The formation of the police force and its relationship to the national police force needs to be defined.

2015 be a crucial point for the peace process, as several key issues in the framework agreement is supposed to be finalised that year. The draft basic law will be submitted to the Congress for approval. The territory of Bangsamoro will have to be determined and plebiscites will be held in the current ARMM territories and some other cities and municipalities to decide whether they will join the autonomous region. Any complication arising from the transition process will extend or even undermine the peace process.



The discussion revolved around three topics: (1) the uncertainties in the implementation of the peace agreement; (2) the implications of the agreement for other internal conflicts in the region; and (3) reactions of the general Filipino public to the agreement.

The uncertainties and challenges facing the peace process include local factional issues, wealth sharing, and constitutional changes. Without proper management, these issues could derail the progress toward peace. Although the MILF is the largest insurgent faction in Mindanao, there are also other political organisations and militant groups that have an influence on the situation on the island, such as the MNLF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf. Their activities and their reactions to the agreement will have implications for future peace in Mindanao. For instance, the way that the MILF addresses armed conflicts and terrorist activities in the southern Philippines will have an effect on its relations with the government.

The sharing of revenues from tax and natural resources also presents a challenge to the local-central relationship. Hence, it is necessary for the transition commission to flesh out this section of the peace agreement to avoid a potential cause of tension.

As noted during the presentation, the MILF insists that amendments to the constitution are necessary to ensure the autonomy of Bangsamoro in the long term. However, constitutional change is a sensitive and complicated issue. Some people are concerned that should a constitutional change be needed, it could encourage calls for other changes in the constitution, such as the presidential term limit and economic provisions concerning the ratio of Filipino participation in foreign investment in the Philippines.

There were comparisons drawn between the peace process in Mindanao and other internal conflicts in Southeast Asia. The resolution of the conflict in Aceh, Indonesia, has been successful in some respects, and the MILF and the Filipino government can learn from Aceh’s experience, such as capacity building for local parties to enable them to be more involved in rebuilding processes. In terms of the conflict in Thailand, it was noted that it is different from the situation in Mindanao as there is no leading rebel group in southern Thailand. It was also observed that the Mindanao experience has attracted the attention of certain ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, which have expressed interest in learning from the case.

The Filipino public is generally receptive to the agreement and the establishment of Bangsamoro, perhaps due to weariness over the long-running internal conflicts in the country. The Christian majority is ready to accommodate the interests and pursuits of the Muslims as long as it leads to lasting peace. However, the receptiveness could decline if any terrorist activities targeting civilians happen. Hence, it is essential to enhance mutual understanding between and among people of different faiths to preserve peace in the southern Philippines.


About the speaker:

Dr Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. In his concurrent role as Regional Advisor for Local Governance, he helps to build local government, decentralisation, and municipal government programmes throughout the region. Dr Rood, an expert on local government, decentralisation, and public opinion polling, has been a consultant to both governments and NGOs, and served as Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines College Baguio from 1981 until joining the Foundation in 1999. He was the only foreign faculty member with tenure in the University of the Philippines system. His most recent publication is Forging Sustainable Peace in Mindanao: The Role of Civil Society (East-West Center Washington, Policy Studies 17, 2005). Dr Rood was educated at University of Washington and received his PhD in Political Science from Boston University.


About The Asia Foundation:

The Asia Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to the development of a peaceful, prosperous, just, and open Asia-Pacific region. The Foundation supports Asian initiatives to improve governance and law, economic development, women’s empowerment, the environment, and regional cooperation. Drawing on nearly 60 years of experience in Asia, the Foundation collaborates with private and public partners to support leadership and institutional development, exchanges, and policy research.

With 17 offices throughout Asia, an office in Washington, DC, and its headquarters in San Francisco, the Foundation addresses these issues on both a country and regional level. In 2011, the Foundation provided more than $97 million in programme support and distributed nearly one million books and journals valued at over $41 million.

Posted on: 19/10/2012 3:00:00 PM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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