In the early hours of 25 January 2015, commandos of the police Special Action Force (SAF) set out to capture or kill Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorist bombers, Zulkifli bin Hir (known by the alias ‘Marwan’) and Basit Usman, who were hiding in the rural areas of Mamasapano, Mindanao in the Philippines. The SAF personnel succeeded in killing Marwan, but came under intense fire from forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsa Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Tragically, 44 SAF personnel died.
This set off a political firestorm with leaders from all sectors and the media demanding explanations about how this had happened and who was to blame. At one extreme, former president Joseph Estrada and others called for a resumption of ‘all out war’ against the ‘Muslim rebels’. Others suggested the government reconsider the ongoing peace negotiations with the MILF. In congress, the committee to produce the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) for an autonomous Muslim political entity in Mindanao suspended its discussions.
There is a long history of unsuccessful peace agreements between the Philippines government and armed Muslim groups seeking independence or autonomy in Mindanao. In 1976, then president Ferdinand Marcos signed the Tripoli Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), then the preeminent armed separatist Muslim group. The terms of this treaty were never fully implemented. And it was superseded in 1986 by the inclusion of a mandate for ‘the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao’ (ARMM) in the new constitution. After a plebiscite in 1989 only four out of 13 designated provinces, and none of the nine identified cities, joined the ARMM. The MNLF and its offshoot, the MILF, refused to cooperate.
But Fidel Ramos brought the Mindanao question back to the forefront of Philippine politics when he assumed the presidency in 1992. Ramos entered into talks with the MNLF under the sponsorship of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with Indonesia as the facilitator. In 1996, Ramos signed a new peace agreement with the MNLF which was heralded as ending ‘decades of war’. But the MILF was not party to the deal. Provinces and cities with majority Christian populations also opted out.
The need to include the MILF in the peace process led to a restarting of negotiations once again in the late 1990s. In 2012, a Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (the new term for the ARMM) was signed and in 2014 this was followed by a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
The next steps in the pursuit of peace were for the congress to draft and enact the BBL. The tragic deaths of the 44 SAF troops in Mamasapano does not appear to have derailed the peace process. But it has been delayed.
The political momentum created in the lead up to the drafting of the BBL has generated widespread support for the peace process. This support has continued after the Mamasapano incident. Comments coming out of congress suggest that the draft BBL will now likely be submitted in September or October 2015.
But there are several uncertainties affecting the progress of the BBL and its eventual implementation.
The Mamasapano tragedy could still impact the BBL. The Philippine National Police, the congress, the ombudsman, the MILF and the International Task Force are all mounting investigations into the incident. Whether the results of these inquiries will muddy the waters remains to be seen.
There are armed groups in Mindanao who are opposed to the peace process and which want full independence, rather than autonomy within the Philippine state. These include the BIFF, a spin-off from the MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Since the Mamasapano tragedy, the Philippine military has been engaged in ‘all out offensives’ against these groups.
The MNLF is also highly unpredictable. The organisation has factionalised and statements from its spokespersons contain very different indications of policy and intention. In September 2013, elements of the MNLF ‘invaded’ Zamboanga City leaving a trail of destruction, death and displacement. This followed another so-called invasion in February 2013 when several hundred armed men landed in the adjacent Malaysian state of Sabah to claim it for the Sultan of Sulu.
Peace in Mindanao will never be achieved unless there is disarmament. And there are many non-state armed groups including the MNLF, MILF, BIFF, ASG, the private armies of politicians, bandit groups and the communist New People’s Army. The MILF, the most heavily armed and politically important of all these groups, is unlikely to take any serious steps to decommission its weapons until all the other armed groups have handed in their armories. Peace in Mindanao still has a way to go but it has not yet been derailed.
Mark Turner is Visiting Professor in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra.
This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.