Peace in Mindanao – at what price?

By the Policy Study, Publication, and Advocacy
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)

(This issue analysis comes in two parts: 1) Bringing the MILF to the Peace Talks; and, II. The Peace Process and U.S. Role)

I. Bringing the MILF to the Peace Talks

Peace is not just the absence of war. It is the outcome of settling an armed conflict by addressing its fundamental roots toward a just and lasting peace. Unless the causes are addressed, any peace that is forged is just a means of preserving an unjust status quo leading to bigger tensions.

In the old days, peace terms were prescribed by victorious states and armies in a war or armed conflict; the terms usually included disarming the vanquished and dismembering territories. The impositions in the treaties that ended the two major world wars of the 20th century yielded no lasting peace: World War I led to World War II, and the latter was followed by the so-called “cold war” and thereafter by the permanent and borderless “war on terrorism.”

In the Philippines, the ongoing peace talks between the Arroyo government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fits into a peace process paradigm developed by capitalist countries led by the United States. Sometimes referred to as globalization-driven, the peace process – somewhat similar to the UN’s “peace building,” “conflict resolution” or “dispute settlement” – purportedly aims to address the core issues of the Bangsamoro problem, namely, the Moro people’s ancestral domain claim and self-rule.

The trouble is, not all “peace processes” are success stories as advocates and current political literature on this paradigm admit. In fact, the backlash generated by a controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (Moa-AD), which is a product of this peace process, and the resumption of hostilities are imperiling the peace talks between the GRP and MILF.

Two major peace talks

The centuries-long Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination – in terms of having a separate and independent state – has gone through two major peace negotiations with the government. The first, held with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), traversed through 20 years ending in the 1996 final peace accord that has been criticized as inadequate in building autonomy and development for the ARMM. The second, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), started in 1997 with an agreement on the cessation of hostilities followed by the Tripoli agreement of 2001(1) . Unfolding in this second process are seemingly irreconcilable interests representing not only the MILF and GRP but also the local elite, investors, and foreign governments.

In the GRP-MNLF peace talks, a confluence of events – on the part of the Marcos regime the economic crisis and the need to tap Middle East countries for oil and market for cheap Filipino labor, and, on the MILF military setbacks and the gradual loss of armed support from Libya and other OIC countries – drove both parties to enter into a negotiated political settlement. In the early phase, however, a faction of the MNLF that disagreed with the peace talks, led by Salamat Hashim, formed the MILF in 1977. The MILF has been the main revolutionary Moro group with its armed component, Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), consistently fighting for secession.

The MILF suffered a major setback when 50 of its military camps were destroyed by the AFP in the total war unleashed by then President Joseph Estrada in 2000 and again, when the Buliok complex which replaced Camp Abubakar as the rebels’ central headquarters, came under heavy military offensive – in violation of a truce – in February 2003. Government offensives forced the MILF’s positional warfare units to disperse into smaller, clan-led guerrilla forces.

Although intelligence reports say that the BIAF is still 15,000-strong with 11,000 firearms, the MILF’s fighting spirit appeared to have reached what some security analysts call a “hurting stalemate” which can go either to extremism by its dispersed units or to a prolonged armed engagement without any prospects of winning. Aside from economic losses and other reasons, the Arroyo government pursued the peace talks in a bid to silence the guns of the MILF – which had been put into effect in the 1997 ceasefire agreement – in order to concentrate on its strategic offensives against the New People’s Army in a vain attempt to put it into irrelevance by 2010.

Ripe time

By 2003, the time was ripe for giving momentum to the “peace process.” The MILF faced the threat of having its inclusion in the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) renewed and, hence, foreign support from Muslim countries being reduced. An exchange of communications between MILF Chair Salamat Hashim (2) and U.S. President George Bush followed in early 2003, paving the way for U.S. participation in the peace talks. Further legitimizing U.S. participation was an official request by Arroyo for U.S. assistance in the peace talks.

Since Malaysia was the official facilitator of the talks being held in Kuala Lumpur, U.S. role was through the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), a quasi-state agency created by an act of Congress. Washington promised an initial $30 million aid package to the MILF subject, however, to the latter’s signing a final peace agreement. The USIP’s Philippine Facilitation Project, which allowed U.S. state department authorities a direct access to the MILF including its military camps, lasted from 2003-2007. Since then, U.S. liaison with the MILF has been continued by the state department and its embassy in Manila.

Meantime, Malaysia, Libya, and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) tried to persuade the MILF to drop its secessionist goal, work for an expanded autonomy and, at one point, to adjust its hard position against the constitutional framework of the negotiations. This stance complemented the USIP’s peace formula regarding an expanded autonomy with legal authority for the MILF and for the GRP to soften its constitutional rigidity.

The MoA-AD, the signing of which was aborted by a Supreme Court (SC) temporary restraining order, articulates a compromise deal with the MILF in which its historical ancestral domain claim is recognized by the government in principle but makes its actualization conditional. The implementation of this claim, along with the ownership of natural resources and the exercise of jurisdictional authority, will need to pass through the gauntlet of more contentious negotiations leading up to the Comprehensive Compact, plebiscite, and a constitutional amendment that will establish a federal system. More importantly, the agreement binds the MILF to honor private landholdings, corporate plantations, foreign investments particularly in energy resources, as well as the presence of foreign forces in Bangsamoro.

II. The Peace Process and U.S. Role

The critique that the U.S. had a hand in crafting the MoA appears to be not without basis. The agreement – the whole peace talks for that matter – is a by-product of a new peace formula whose underlying goal is to enhance the U.S.’ comprehensive security strategy in Mindanao and the whole Southeast Asian region. Among other instruments, the superpower’s security imperatives, i.e., economic, geo-political, and military objectives, are promoted through the now spurious “war on terrorism” defining the region as the second front. This post-9/11 declaration, backed by Arroyo, became the entry point for an indefinite forward deployment of U.S. forces and basing facilities particularly in southern Philippines.

With the USIP and other policy thinkers in Washington, however, this strategy has been reformulated to adopt what is described as the “political economy of security.” Basically, this new formula postulates that U.S. security imperatives are better advanced by transforming the Bangsamoro into a governable zone and a stable extension of global capitalism supported by international funds and investments in a post-conflict scenario. Mindanao, particularly the Bangsamoro homeland, holds the key to U.S. security goals in Southeast Asia and the MILF is seen as a major player for undercutting the influence of anti-American extremism particularly among the region’s Muslim populations. The non-resolution of the Moro problem now will have far-reaching implications to U.S. security imperatives in the region in the future.

What this means is that, using the classic “carrot and stick” policy, U.S. special forces will continue to pin down the Abu Sayyaf Group and other alleged terrorist networks through surgical military strikes and expanded intelligence, but the politico-diplomatic approach will moderate the MILF by tying it down to a protracted peace process and cutting its ties to the ASG and extremist politics. As far as the U.S. is concerned, the push for the MILF’s abandonment of secessionism matched by the Arroyo regime’s dropping of its constitutional rigidity with the support of Malaysia and other countries is a positive step for moving the peace process forward.

MILF disarmament

But this formula will only succeed if, among other conditions, the MILF is finally disarmed and transformed into a mass-based political party thereby enhancing – in the language of the peace process – its legitimate political authority. It also depends on the cooperation and, more important, the political will of the Arroyo government even as, in the eyes of the USIP and other U.S. policy strategists, it is weak and incapable of delivering peace and development in the Moro communities (3). In the post-conflict scenario, it is almost inevitable for the U.S. with its military presence in Mindanao to head an international mission to guarantee the security of a new Bangsamoro.

The cooperation of the Arroyo regime and the MILF in this new peace formula is assured by internationalizing the peace process – the icing on the cake, so to speak. Supportive of the “peace and development” policy for Mindanao, a coalition of donor countries led by the U.S., Japan as well as the World Bank is committed to fund the Bangsamoro’s economic reconstruction. Aside from infusing 60 percent of its economic assistance to the Philippines in Mindanao, the USAID has committed a multi-year Mindanao Peace and Development Agreement worth $190 million and increased its economic support fund (ESF) to 25.9 million US dollars. Japan, besides joining the International Monitoring Team (IMT), has committed 400 million US dollars in Mindanao. Japan, which is also the U.S.’ chief security partner in East Asia, is working closely with the MILF’s development arm, Bangsamoro Development Agency. Similar commitments have come from Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Libya, and the OIC.

Cold war

Peace process as a paradigm finds its birth in the 1970s when it was coined by U.S. policy strategists to reduce tensions between Israel – a U.S. ally – Egypt, and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The first peace process involving Israel and Egypt was choreographed by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, considered dean of the realist diplomacy, as part of their détente strategy for winning the cold war in the Middle East. While there had been agreements forged, the process itself – hyped as the “roadmap to peace” – has been incremental for 40 years. Meantime, while tensions have aggravated in the Middle East today, the net effect of this peace process, among others, has included the rise of Israel as a nuclear power occupying a major swathe of the Palestinian land claim, the taming of the Palestine Liberation Organization by giving it a symbolic political authority, and a pro-U.S. Egypt.

After the cold war, peace process has been introduced in several flashpoints in the world including Northern Ireland, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Aceh, East Timor, Bougainville, Kosovo, Kenya, the Basque region in Spain, and now, in Mindanao. As a politico-diplomatic track adopted in the global anti-terrorist war, peace process is the entry point for the U.S. purportedly to bring stability and governance in so-called “ungoverned” and “contested” territories such as Mindanao followed by a post-conflict program of international aid and security guarantee.

Global capitalism

The major political-economic goal of the peace process is to extend and embed market-driven global capitalism in these areas. A British scholar, Jan Selby, notes that the peace process is more of “a stalling mechanism for the powerful” whose central purpose “is to forestall radical or revolutionary political change” as well as to “reconsolidate hegemony and/or legitimacy.” Meanwhile, this peace formula has given birth to a global “peace industry” that involves multilateral agencies, think tanks, academic consultant groups, corporate investors, media, and elite stakeholders.

In Mindanao, the USIP itself anticipated that the MoA-AD would face strong legal and constitutional resistance and predicted Arroyo’s lack of capability in pushing the peace process to the end. Indeed the draft agreement has lit a wildfire of resistance from powerful non-Muslim politicians and landlords who have threatened war against the MILF unless it is shelved. How to bring stability and governance that would make the MILF the political authority which is only possible if the Muslim sultans and non-Muslim oligarchs disengage from dominant power politics is a daunting task.

This underscores the inherent failure of the peace process – the reason why, according to Selby – the whole exercise, which involves deliberate, well-calibrated long and tedious phases, does not provide substantial basis for sustainable, lasting peace. But if the net effect – which appears to be an underlying motive in the “peace process” – is to at least pacify a rebel army toward its eventual capitulation or accepting an exit strategy from war, then that itself can be claimed as an accomplishment by the peace architects.

But, at what price? The peace process can bring about a simulated peace – but not the final solution to the Bangsamoro people’s historic and just grievances. Moro leaders should be wary with other external parties’ facilitation programs that put into greater harm the core interests not only of the Bangsamoro people but the sovereign and territorial rights of the country as a whole.

The challenge to both parties, particularly the MILF, is how to address the Bangsamoro people’s historic and just grievances by pursuing peace talks based on sincerity, independence, and non-interference by external parties except a transparent and facilitative role of a third party negotiator. The call for full transparency in the talks should include full consultations with Lumads and non-Muslim communities in the disputed territories.

As the MILF leadership itself said when Hashim announced their 50-year jihad in 2000, if peace cannot be achieved now under Arroyo it will do so with her successor and thereafter.


(1) Implementing Guidelines on the Security Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of 2001.

(2) Reports said that it was Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. who convinced Salamat Hashim to write Bush in January 2003. Pimentel is the architect of federalism that aims to transform Bangsamoro into a federated state.

(3) In fact, some Washington policy experts on this issue see the Arroyo government as the main problem and not the MILF.

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