By Norashiqin Toh –
President Benigno Aquino’s plan for lasting peace in the southern Philippines came to its long-anticipated end on February 3, as the Philippine Congress adjourned for election season without having passed his legacy peace agreement. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would have created an autonomous political entity for the ethnic Moro people in Mindanao, was meant to supersede a ceasefire agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group. When a new president takes office in Manila on June 30, renewing the peace process must be an immediate priority to preserve the real chance at peace that Aquino came close to achieving.
Government officials touted the BBL as the solution to decades of insurgencies in the restive region, but the bill proved widely unpopular. A deadly clash in January 2015 between government troops and separatist fighters derailed discussions on the bill. The Mamasapano incident left 44 Special Action Forces and 17 MILF members dead, and exposed the Aquino administration to harsh criticism. In its aftermath, supporting the BBL became a toxic proposition for many politicians. A deliberate lack of quorum in Congress prevented voting on the bill for most of 2015, even after Aquino labeled the bill a priority.
Congress may have killed the proposed BBL, but the peace process is not over. The government has been working to institutionalize peace efforts beyond Aquino’s term. Government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer was quick to say that congressional failure to pass BBL “did not, and will not, stop the momentum of the Bangsamoro peace process.” A special meeting on February 10-11 between government and MILF peace teams further shored up the talks by extending the ceasefire agreement until March 31, 2017.
Still, the clock is ticking, and a matter as delicate as the peace process could easily be upset by another military incident. Vigorously pursuing a resolution of the impasse must be a priority for the incoming administration. The Philippines is poised to set an example for the peaceful, democratic resolution of extremist conflict in a region with many active separatist movements. Moreover, a renewed domestic security challenge would distract the Philippines from a long overdue external security focus. The recent approval of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States and increasing tensions in the South China Sea mean the Philippines cannot devote its energies to internal unrest. Bringing the long-running conflict in Mindanao to an end would allow the Philippines to focus on external threats and modernization of its military.
Of the five candidates in the 2016 presidential election, former interior minister Mar Roxas is most likely to pick up where the previous administration left off. Endorsed by Aquino and standard bearer of the Liberal Party, his campaign platform is focused on continuing Aquino’s reforms. Speaking to Mindanao business owners in June 2015, Roxas called the BBL “a tool to attain stable and reliable peace.” While Roxas became noticeably quieter about the bill as its failure became apparent, he told reporters in January that he would “nurture the gains and dividends of the peace process gained by the Aquino administration.” Resubmitting Aquino’s BBL would be a non-starter, but Roxas would be likely to take the draft agreement as a starting point for his own bill.
Many Muslims place their faith in Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who comes from Mindanao. Duterte initially supported the BBL, with misgivings over some provisions in the bill, but ultimately pushed for federalism as a better alternative. Duterte is well known for his support for Philippine federalism, and believes only federal structure can bring peace to Mindanao.
Senator Grace Poe, current frontrunner in some polls, is an ideological ally of the president, but opposed his draft of the BBL for fear that it would create an independent republic within the Philippines. She has said that peace and development would be her administration’s top priorities. Noting that most of the poorest provinces in Mindanao are conflict-ridden, she has called for the government to invest more in the province and create more development projects. Whatever form of peace she pursued if she’s elected would likely have more focus on development than the BBL.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, a leader in the opposition United Nationalist Alliance, disagreed with the agreement negotiated between the government and the MILF. He has declared that as president he would pursue peace negotiations to “a meaningful and final resolution of the armed conflict.” He has also espoused engagement with other stakeholders in the peace negotiations, including the Christians, indigenous groups such as the Lumads, and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from which the MILF broke off in the late 1970s.
Senator Miriam Santiago led the Senate committee that declared the BBL unconstitutional. However, she claimed that her goal, as a leading constitutional law expert, was to ensure that the BBL would withstand scrutiny in the Supreme Court, not to thwart peace negotiations. Though a Santiago presidency appears extremely unlikely, a peace agreement under her would doubtless be meticulously crafted to avoid many of the constitutionality complaints that plagued Aquino’s BBL.
For now, the only certain player in future negotiations is the MILF. Although the decommissioning process of MILF militants has been put on hold, chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and other Muslim leaders have re-affirmed that the MILF will hold to the ceasefire agreement. But negotiators cannot prevent factions of the rebels growing frustrated with a lack of progress. Radical secessionists already opposed to peace talks could exploit the failure of the BBL to increase recruitment and instigate violence and chaos. Prioritizing the resumption of the peace process and addressing the failures of the BBL are critical when a new administration takes office on June 30.