Deal in the Southern Philippines: Why Now?

On July 14, the Philippine government and the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a comprehensive wealth-sharing agreement. This step comes in the wake of the peace framework agreed upon by Manila and the rebels in October 2012, aimed at ending the forty-year guerrilla war that has plagued the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Analysts are, for the first time, relatively optimistic on an end to the conflict. Given the political deadlock that has long stymied peacemaking efforts, it is pertinent to examine why a breakthrough is only now occurring.

Bold Steps

The Bangsamoro region of the Southern Philippines – comprising the western part of Mindanao and the neighbouring Sulu, Palawan, and Basilan archipelagoes – is home to the majority of the country’s Muslim population. Though they have resisted rule from Manila for centuries, the current guerrilla war was sparked in 1968 following a massacre of dozens of Muslim army recruits by members of the Philippine armed forces. This spawned the creation of the Moro National Liberation Front, which for years led the fight for an independent homeland in Bangasomoro. An organizational split in 1979 gave rise to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which soon eclipsed its progenitor. Since 1969, some 120,000 have been killed across the Philippines, and an additional two million displaced. As a result, economic development in the south has remained stagnant for years.

The heart of the insurgency is found in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), formed in 1989 by the federal government to placate some of the separatists’ demands. In spite of its name, the ARMM is dependent on Manila for 98% of its operating revenue. In exchange for MILF‘s renouncing its call for full sovereignty, the federal government has agreed to completely reorganize the region under the name Bangsamoro.

Under the new agreement, MILF-led Bangsamoro government will collect 75% of the island’s metal resources, 100% of non-metallic resources, and fossil fuels will be split evenly with Manila. The value of Bangsamoro’s mineral deposits is estimated to be $312 billion USD? The conflict has blunted prospects for economic development – the region currently has a per capita GDP of less than $650, making it the poorest area in the Philippines. This fact makes the wealth-sharing agreement all the more enticing a prospect for an area so desperately in need of investment.

The most controversial aspect of the wealth-sharing agreement has been the automatic appropriation of federal funds to the Bangsamoro government, which has been characterized by chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer as the “jewel in the crown.”  This will take the form of a lump sum allocated, with no congressional oversight. Bangsamoro will, in effect, have free reign over these payments. Agreeing to set aside such a large sum is a huge step. As recently as 2006, the government of the ARMM was appropriated only $5.6 billion of the Philippines’ $980 billion budget, which itself was subject to close scrutiny by congress.

Noynoy and the Looming Dragon  

The recent breakthroughs can be attributed to a number of factors. Many credit the personal charisma of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III – Noynoy, as he is affectionately called – to the recent breakthroughs. Hailing from one of the Philippines’ most prominent political dynasties, Aquino has set upon a path of major reforms since assuming the presidency in 2010. He has prioritized reaching a peace deal with the rebels before his mandate expires in 2016. His persistence in ending the conflict has even earned the respect of MILF’s leaders, who had previously charged that the peace process was too complicated for him to understand. The tentative success of the peace deal with the MILF is another notch on the president’s belt, who is rapidly shaping up to be one of the most ambitious leaders in Southeast Asia.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

Larger geopolitical concerns have framed the Aquino administration’s persistence in finding an end settlement with the rebels.  Recent showdowns on the high seas, both with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Taiwanese navy, have reminded the Philippine defense establishment just how antiquated their forces are. With eyes set firmly on international flashpoints, Aquino has demonstrated that he is willing to make the concessions necessary in Mindanao to rectify a long-standing issue.

Fears of China are exacerbated by public acknowledgements of the deep structural issues plaguing Beijing’s export-driven growth. The Chinese economy grew 7.5% in April-June – the ninth quarter of slowdown of the past ten. Unless China’s new generation of leaders are able to address the country’s fundamental issues – and evidence points to this stalling so far – the results could be catastrophic. Chinese assertiveness in the contested waters could take a dangerous turn should this continue, as economic flux and an ambitious military leadership have historically made for a combustible mix. Manila can no longer afford to divert military assets into Mindanao.

Criticism

Though the deal is being hailed as a significant breakthrough in a decades-long conflict, some are questioning the allocation of such a vast sum to Bangsamoro. The automatic appropriation of such a large share of the Philippine national budget with little accountability has raised eyebrows, especially in light of MILF vice chair Ghadzali Jaafar’s recent statements that his group would not disarm unless clear terms for the safety of fighters are met. The Filipino public is understandably wary of transferring huge amounts of federal cash to a group that had, until very recently, been engaged in a brutal guerrilla war against Manila’s authority.

Ending a forty-year struggle that has sapped Manila’s resources could prove a watershed moment, both for the Philippines and for other localized conflicts in Southeast Asia. Some lawmakers may decry these concessions, but it is precisely these sorts of bold moves that are essential in finally ending the insurgency. While more work is needed on certain areas of negotiation, namely the tricky issue of disarming MILF soldiers,  Aquino will likely be remembered not only for bringing peace to the Southern Philippines, but for helping a neglected region finally achieve a level of autonomy.

Daniel Bodirsky

About Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: danielbodirsky@gmail.com Twitter: @danbodirsky