Terrorism in the Philippines: dangerous delays are dashing hopes
26 Apr 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Unsplash.

Fifteen years ago, a network linking Philippine terrorist groups with counterparts across Southeast Asia and the Middle East was found to be behind the Bali bombings that killed 202 people. Perpetrators found a haven for years in Muslim Mindanao. In reaction, international support for Muslim Mindanao’s decades-old, stop-start peace process has increased significantly. Australia’s Philippine country program is testament to this.

A recent piece by Sidney Jones for The Interpreter, and a detailed IPAC report, examine how an analogous network is developing between terrorist groups in Muslim Mindanao, the Islamic State terror group and Southeast Asian terrorists. The 6 April arrest in Manila of suspected Islamic State operatives from Syria and Kuwait reinforces that foreboding sense of déjà vu.

Three years ago, great hopes arose that a political solution to the Moro Islamic insurgency, and the safe haven it provides to terrorists, was on the horizon when the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed in March 2014 by the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Moro insurgent group. Six months later, a Bangsamoro Basic Law based on the agreement was tabled for legislative approval. A botched police raid for a Malaysian terrorist in Muslim Mindanao in January 2015 that cost 44 policemen their lives drained legislative support for the law. It wasn’t passed.

The election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in May 2016 raised those dashed hopes to a new high. He’s the first president from Mindanao, has good relations with key Moro leaders, claims Moro ancestry, and placed finding a political solution to the Moro Islamic insurgency at the core of his administration’s security policy. The current Senate Majority Leader and the House Majority Leader are also from Mindanao.

While the President’s commitment to bringing peace to Muslim Mindanao is unquestioned, there are at least four reasons to worry that his approach may again dash hopes for a settlement. Each by itself is a problem, together they are daunting.

Dangerous delay: The Duterte administration replaced the Aquino administration’s Bangsamoro Transition Commission  with a larger, more diverse one. This new commission, tasked to draft a new Bangsamoro Basic Law to provide the governmental structure for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, was only established on 24 February, eight months into the President’s single six-year term, and its budget has yet to be released. The commission’s goal of submitting to the President a new draft law by 15 May, the timeline for Congress to pass the law by December 2017 and for Bangsamoro elections in 2019 look overly ambitious.

Complexity: The new Bangsamoro Basic Law is likely to be more complicated than its predecessor. The current Bangsamoro Transition Commission includes representatives from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and indigenous peoples’ representatives as well as government negotiators and a majority appointed by the MILF. The Duterte administration’s roadmap for peace, presumably through the new Bangsamoro Law, calls for:

‘…consolidation and/or convergence of the various peace agreements already entered into like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the Moro National Liberation Front’s 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA), including relevant provisions of the Republic Act No. 9054 (or the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao Law) and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA).’

Ultimately though, that will be difficult to achieve and any law that’s passed is likely to face numerous Constitutional challenges.

Parallel tracks: The three commissioners from the MNLF appointed by the government come from the Muslimin Sema faction that supports the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. President Duterte has also included Nur Misuari in his expanded approach to the peace process. Misuari, the founder of the MNLF, used his November 2016 public remarks at the presidential palace to attack Malaysia, the third-party facilitator in the current peace process, reject the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and label the MILF traitors and criminals. The Duterte administration has promised to conduct parallel negotiations with Misuari that will then converge with the main peace process. How?

Federalism: Duterte has seen the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, as, at best, an interim phase before the introduction of a federal political system. He’s long seen federalism as the only political solution to the Moro insurgency. The push for federalism’s only now starting in earnest and could well complicate or pre-empt the passage of a Bangsamoro Basic Law and creation of a Bangsamoro regional government. Yet, the process of the Constitutional revision a shift to federalism entails is lengthy and complicated and requires popular approval. The president wants federalism to be introduced before the end of his term in 2022.

International, Southeast Asian and local terrorism dynamics are once again putting Muslim Mindanao back into the spotlight. A political solution to the Moro Islamic insurgency is the best way to extinguish this light. President Duterte may be the best positioned political leader to realise that frequently dashed hope. However, his chosen approach may work against his desired outcome.