Government and governance, National security, Social policy | Asia, Southeast Asia

21 December 2016

Despite big expectations that his presidency would see a final peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Duterte’s confused policy approach looks set to kick the can further down the road, Jeroen Adam writes.

“We will strive to have a permanent and lasting peace before my term ends. That is my goal, that is my dream.” This dream is probably not the sort of thing one would immediately associate with Rodrigo Duterte; yet, this is exactly what the Philippine President proclaimed in his first State of the Union Address in June 2016. While most debates on the Duterte presidency have been preoccupied by his aggressive war on drugs, it tends to be forgotten that the commitment to reach a binding peace agreement with Muslim (and communist) rebels in the restive Southern island of Mindanao has always been one of his central rallying points.

This became clear after a visit in late February 2016 to the city of Cotabato and a nearby MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) camp as part of his presidential campaign. With his pledge to address the historical injustices committed against the Muslim minority and his ‘revelation’ that his grandmother was a Muslim, his visit struck a sensitive chord in a region that was known to be a stronghold for the oppositionist Liberal Party.

The visit has to be understood against a background of profound disappointment among large parts of the Philippine Muslim community: disappointment that a signed peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government had not been transformed into a binding legal framework during the Aquino presidency; and disappointment that throughout the presidential campaign, hardly any substantive debate took place about the future direction of these peace negotiations.

The only one seriously wanting to tackle these issues seemed to be Duterte, making him the number one presidential candidate for the majority of Muslims in the region. It is thus no coincidence that his presidential election in May 2016 was met with enthusiasm among the MILF and its leadership. MILF chairman Murad called Duterte “a true son of Mindanao” and stated that the election of Duterte as president of the Philippines would “carry with it hopes and aspirations for peace and justice in Mindanao.”

More on this: Maverick from Mindanao: Will Duterte’s strongman style help or harm the Philippines?

More than half a year after the public proclamation of this dream for permanent and lasting peace, what are the prospects for a more sustainable peace in Muslim Mindanao? The short answer is that the prospects are diminishing fast. A number of explanations need to be mentioned here. The first one concerns the appointment of a range of people from the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010) within the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). Apart from a personal aversion that plays out between some of the key players within the MILF and OPAPP, the perceived lack of continuity with the administration of Benigno Aquino III, who served between Arroyo and Duterte, was of particular concern to the MILF.

Apart from these tensions, a much bigger concern is that it became increasingly clear that there is no coherent and strategic policy framework in terms of peace and conflict. The promise of a shift towards federalism, which was always one of the leading mantras of Duterte’s campaign, has been met with considerable scepticism among the MILF. Apart from the fact that it remains very opaque how this federal future will ultimately look, a real fear exists that the drive for federalism will only further delay any implementation of a final peace agreement.

This lack of coherent policy can also be witnessed in the position the administration is taking towards the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), which was the precursor to the MILF. The government signed a final peace agreement with the MNLF in 1997, however a lot of issues remain unsolved, including the position of their former chairman Nur Misuari, a deeply-divisive figure for his alleged role in an armed attack on the city of Zamboanga in September 2013, resulting in the death of over 200 people.  Duterte, who considers Nur Misuari a close friend, always insisted that the MNLF and Misuari would be included in the ongoing peace talks with the MILF.

Misuari’s refusal to sit at the same table as the MILF resulted in the establishment of a second and new peace panel in November 2016. How these two processes relate to each other is unclear. The press statement by Jess Dureza, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, that the two different peace tracks “will somehow converge in Congress without converging in the process” bears little confidence in this regard. Quite predictably, this statement opened up a lot of questions among NGOs involved in the peace process. In the meantime, Duterte’s recent threat to start engaging in a full-scale war with some ‘renegade’ MILF commanders only added more anxiety and uncertainty.

In contrast to the ‘no-nonsense’ style of communication and strongman image, the policies that the Duterte administration is pursuing in Muslim Mindanao are marked by improvisation and vagueness. As the honeymoon period of the presidency is almost over, more and more people are voicing their doubt about his government’s capacity to deal seriously with the challenges ahead. Once again, any prospect for a more sustainable peace in the region seems only a distant dream.

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Adam, Jeroen. 2017. "An Indecisive Strongman - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.