MANILA, Philippines—A Belgium-based non-government organization focusing on conflict prevention has said that the Philippine government’s framework peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front must hurdle several issues to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao.
The International Crisis Group, in a report (http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/philippines/240-the-philippines-breakthrough-in-mindanao.pdf) published December 5, said “it was difficult to predict at this stage whether the framework agreement will produce a lasting peace.” It conceded, however, that the political environment was “far more favourable than it was when the last agreement collapsed in 2008.”
“This time around, the president is popular, has slightly over half his term left, and has shown that he is committed to peace with the MILF. But it is clear that there are serious obstacles on the horizon, including whether the basic law will be compatible with the constitution; possible opposition from Christians, indigenous peoples and the Sulu archipelago; the potential for an MILF splinter to grow if implementation stalls; and the future of MILF fighters and their weapons,” the ICG said in a statement.
The ICG report noted that as with earlier scuttled pacts, the framework agreement deferred tough questions “and it is unclear how, if ever, they will be resolved.”
“Politics in Mindanao or Manila could get in the way, and it may be impossible to devolve sufficient power to the Bangsamoro government without running afoul of the constitution. The MILF is unlikely to surrender its arms until the process is complete,” the ICG said.
However, the ICG-Southeast Asia project director Jim Della-Giacoma called the framework agreement “a triumph for both sides” pointing out that the breakthrough took place “because government negotiators came to the table with creative ideas, and their MILF counterparts responded by being flexible and pragmatic.”
“For years, it looked like the government and the MILF were never going to agree on the terms of a final peace. The framework agreement is still only a preliminary sketch, but it is Mindanao’s best chance yet”,” added ICG-Southeast Asia senior analyst Bryony Lau.
The ICG report was generally optimistic about the peace negotiations but added that there were several challenges to be addressed.
“For the Bangsamoro, the framework agreement holds out the possibility of peace, a responsive government and a better, more prosperous future for their children. Nothing has changed yet, but there is real hope that this time will be different. The MILF, the government and their international partners need to work together to ensure those hopes are not dashed,” the ICG said.
Founded in 1995 and headquartered in Brussels, the ICG, according to its website, is independent, non-profit, NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. The group published last April and July an analysis on the West Philippine Sea dispute between China and neighboring countries.
ICG’s president and chief executive officer is Louise Arbour, former UN high commissioner for human rights, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and Canadian Supreme Court justice. The group’s board chair is former United States Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, who served as ambassador to the UN, Russia, India and Israel, among others.
The ICG, which interviewed MILF, Filipino government officials and policy experts for its 26-page report, said President Aquino’s decision to consult the people and other civil society groups about the agreement “will give other voices in Mindanao a chance to be heard.”
“The MILF’s leaders, who claim to represent all Bangsamoro despite the undeniably fractious politics of the region, have agreed to make space for others to sit at the table and help them craft the new law that will create a Bangsamoro government. If all goes well, this will increase the popular legitimacy of the peace process; if it does not, and the Bangsamoro cannot even agree among themselves, it will do serious damage to the idea of regional autonomy,” he said.
The next hurdle, the ICG said, would be passing a new basic autonomy law through Congress.
“The president’s popularity and considerable political capital will help with stakeholders in Manila, and the depth of his commitment to securing peace in Mindanao will become clear when constitutional issues inevitably rear their head. If the process stalls at any stage, it may be hard for the MILF leadership to control its commanders and retain popular support,” the ICG said.
The ICG said that if it were not possible to establish the Bangsamoro government within the bounds of the 1987 Constitution, then the Charter would have to be revised or amended. Otherwise, the peace process will fail.
According to the group, the MILF does not want the Bangsamoro to be limited by the Constitution’s provisions on local government and autonomous regions. The MILF also believes that the future Bangsamoro government’s ministerial structure and powers to hold elections, run the police and oversee the provinces and municipalities in its area, as would be elaborated in the new basic law, would be incompatible with the 1987 Constitution.
According to the ICG, the MILF also has political reasons to push for an amendment: to prove that their leaders “drove a harder bargain” than the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996 and to address worries about securing the gains of the peace process for future generations.
“As a negotiator put it: ‘Now we have a very good President, who wants to give power to the Moros …. But that’s why we need to change the Constitution so another President cannot take away all these things and leave us naked,” the ICG report said.
The ICG said the MILF signed the framework agreement “because it understood the President’s wait-and-see approach and believed he was willing to revisit the constitutional issue at some point before the end of his term.”
However, the group said “several unknowns” could affect the constitutional issues at play.
“Will the transition commission produce a basic law that is unconstitutional? Is President Aquino really willing to open the issue of constitutional change near the end of his term? And could the results of the 2013 mid-term elections diminish his influence over Congress? The latter is crucial because it is the House of Representatives and the Senate – not the President – which would hold the power to secure a constitutional amendment,” the ICG said.
This is why a lot needs to be done to keep the peace negotiations on track.
“The framework agreement does not mean that by giving the Bangsamoro space to write the basic law, the Aquino government can step back, bask in the glow of a final peace, and wash its hands of what happens next. The MILF and other armed groups in Mindanao have rebelled for decades because there is a deeply rooted anti-Bangsamoro bias at the core of the Philippine state. This is why autonomy has always been the only solution and why the Bangsamoro cannot achieve it on their own. Peace in the country’s troubled south could well be President Aquino’s legacy – but only if he stays the course,” the ICG added.