Bangsamoro after the plebiscite

What comes next in the Mindanao peace process?

Zachary Abuza

Government and governance, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia

4 March 2019

With a great number of political and economic obstacles standing in the way of peace in the Philippines, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority has a long list of challenges to tackle, Zachary Abuza writes.

The two phases of the plebiscite for the implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law have now been carried out.

The first phase saw an overwhelming response for inclusion in five of six provinces and cities. The second round, which was for contiguous areas that were not part of the original Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), was held on 6 February.

The results were decidedly mixed in the second round. Barangays in North Cotabato voted for inclusion but none of the six towns in Lanao del Norte joined, after a complex two-phase voting process that kept individual towns out despite their vote for inclusion.

So where do we go from here?

The 80-person Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) was recently named and sworn in. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) appointed 41 people and the government appointed 39, of which 25 were from the previous autonomous government.

The BTA will act as the interim government based on a parliamentary system. Headed by the MILF chairman, Ebrahim el Haj Murad, it will be in power for three years until elections are organised within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The timing of recent attacks and suggests that they were most likely meant to spoil the peace process. Pro-Islamic State groups – including the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and the Maute group – oppose the BARMM, as it undermines their narrative of Christian invasion and colonial rule from Manila which demand a ‘defensive jihad’.

None of these groups have shown any interest in negotiating with the government. Indeed, they all stand to gain by continued attacks that will force ongoing military operations against them.

This serves their interests in two distinct ways. Firstly, the government’s heavy-handed tactics and human rights abuses alienate the local population, as does their continued reliance on artillery fire and gravity bombs, which – more often than not – kills civilians. Second, it reinforces their narrative that, despite autonomy, the region remains under colonial subjugation.

While there is still no conclusive evidence that the 28 January attack was a suicide bombing by Indonesian militants, Mindanao will continue to attract foreign fighters from the region with the declaration of the Islamic State of East Asia, with its wilayat – or province – centres located in southern Philippines. It is only there that pro-Islamic State militants have any hope of controlling territory.

The onus will be on the MILF to restore law and order. That was one of their key arguments in selling the peace process to sceptical Philippine legislators and to the public following the 2015 Mamasapano incident. Only the MILF has the incentive and intelligence to go after pro-Islamic State groups and prevent the next Marawi from occurring.

The MILF will have to commence the next phase of decommissioning. The first phase – which involved heavy crew-serviced weapons – took place in 2015. But with the plebiscite’s completion, they now need to demobilise 30 per cent of their men, and retire the remainder following the elections.

This brings us back to the plebiscite results in Lanao del Norte – where the MILF campaigned actively against a powerful anti-inclusion clan. The MILF now have three camps in the province and are unlikely to relinquish them or decommission those arms.

Other powerful clans that have historically allied themselves with the government also fear the loss of political power – if not retribution – under BARMM governance. This includes powerful clans such as the Ampatuans who were allegedly responsible for the massacre of 58 people, journalists, and political rivals in 2009.

The MILF has said that one of their first orders of business will be to not only decommission their own arms but to also retire private armies.

The decommissioning of weapons from any party in a region where lawlessness and insecurity prevail is a tall order – it could unleash a new wave of intra-Moro violence. In the past few years, a significant percentage of violence was the result of rido – or clan wars. As long as people rely on violence and extra-legal means to resolve disputes, broad-based decommissioning seems unlikely.

Moreover, there is insufficient funding for the decommissioning, demobilisation, and rehabilitation processes.

The reality is that a lot of MILF combatants will be demobilised without sufficient training, jobs, or opportunities for them to return to. The BIFF and Mautes both grew out of the MILF and continue to recruit from its ranks.

If the new government can establish a modicum of law and order, the real challenge will be growing the economy. Expectations are very high that the peace process will lead to a period of prosperity.

The BARMM is the poorest part of a developing country with some of the lowest human development indicators. In addition to the ₱32 billion (US $650 million) budget that was allocated to the ARMM government, the BARMM government will receive an additional ₱30 billion (US $577 million) block grant and a ₱50 billion (US $961 million) special grant for rehabilitation in conflict-affected areas.

On top of that, the region will receive a larger block grant from the national government next year. With nearly three times what the preceding ARMM government had received, these funds give the new government considerably more resources to revitalise the economy.

In addition, the 2014 peace agreement gives the BARMM government 75 per cent of the revenue from natural resources, which also includes some offshore oil and gas fields.

The real issue is the degree to which they can extract natural resources without endemic corruption. While there are calls for a rainy day fund for natural resources, there are no plans to establish one yet.

Mindanao has a potentially rich agricultural sector and a plethora of natural resources that have largely been untapped due to the multiple conflicts. The potential for a surge of domestic and foreign investment is there. The question is whether there is a sufficient legal system as well as there being enough safeguards against rent-seeking and predation to allow for broad-based economic growth.

Perhaps there is no greater challenge for the BARMM government than the rehabilitation of the city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur, which was largely destroyed in a five-month battle following a takeover by pro-Islamic State militants in mid-2017.

Reconstruction of the city has been contracted to a consortium of three Chinese firms, two of which had once been blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption, and the whole process has now stalled due to a lack of capital. At the time of writing, almost no reconstruction has begun.

What lies ahead for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority and, more generally, the country is still unclear. Amidst a mélange of violence, corruption, and economic instability, what the Mindanao peace process needs to fulfil its purposes is strong leadership – a great challenge in and of itself.

The views here are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the views of the National War College, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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