Philippines: Extended Bangsamoro Transition Reasonable, but Risky

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Philippines: Extended Bangsamoro Transition Reasonable, but Risky Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, gestures after casting his vote in Maguindanao province, Philippines, during the plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law, Jan. 21, 2019.

The appointed chief minister of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines recently met with President Rodrigo Duterte to request a three-year extension to his interim leadership before an elected government can be established.

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARRM) was established under terms of a peace deal after decades of conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government security forces. Its success is key to the security of a region where violence is endemic.

While there are some very good reasons for the delayed transition to democracy under the BARRM, it could cause a political backlash and undermine the peace process if they are not communicated well.

How we got here

The MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the early 1980s. Its members were not party to the MNLF’s 1996 peace agreement with the Philippine government, and grew as MNLF combatants defected.

By 1999, the MILF held vast swaths of territory in Mindanao. Yet, the external environment changed after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, when MILF ties to al-Qaeda and its regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, were exposed.

Moreover, after 1999, the MILF lost every major military encounter, and territories once under its control became more integrated with the rest of the Philippines.

By 2003 the MILF had sued for peace. A draft peace agreement was concluded in 2007, but the cabinet of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rejected it, while the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in 2008. The MILF returned to arms, but could not sustain an insurgency.

After several factions of hardliners broke away, the MILF returned to the peace process, culminating in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro on Oct. 15, 2012, and then the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed on March 27, 2014.

The Mamasapano incident in January 2015 that left 44 police commandos dead put the agreement on hold until Duterte pushed through its implementing legislation, the Bangsamoro Organic Law, in July 2018.

On Feb. 22, 2019, following two referendums, the appointed, interim government of the BARMM began its work.

Heavy lifting

The peace agreement stipulated that an appointed interim government – the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) – would administer the BARMM for three years until a government could be elected in 2022.

It was always going to be a heavy lift.

The BTA had to pass key pieces of legislation, including provisions to establish its own civil service, educational system, revenue collection, elections, administration and local government units. While these were not difficult, they had to be reconciled with existing Philippine laws and the Constitution.

The legislation was written by an 80-member body with limited legal and legislative experience. The MILF appointed half of the BTA members while the government appointed the other half.

Though the BTA passed its administrative code in October, the passage of other legislation has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the BTA has done an effective job despite the Philippine government using the military and other coercive efforts to enforce quarantines. 

The BTA just received BARMM’s proposal for a 75 billion peso (U.S. $1.5 billion) budget for 2021. To date, it has done an adequate job administrating the BARMM without a lot of practical experience.

A three-year extension, prima facie, is not unreasonable. But it has to be handled well, to deal with MNLF concerns, in particular.

MNLF equities

Many of the government appointees to the BTA are MNLF members who have not all been on board with this peace process because it superseded their own 1996 accord.

One of the reasons that a parliamentary system of government was established for the BARMM was to ensure that the MNLF, which dominates the ethnic Tausug regions of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Zamboanga, always had significant representation.

But the BTA’s chief executive is the MILF chairman, Murad Ebrahim, and its executive branch is dominated by the MILF.

The MNLF has always worried that the MILF would dominate any government (elected or appointed) in the BARMM.

Its members have some reason to fear this. In preparation for the peace process, the MILF established a political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, and has spent several years training members in party work and mobilization.

The MNLF never effectively established a political party.

The MILF has been more unified than the MNLF, which has not only experienced internal factionalism, but has seen the deaths of key first generation leaders such as Yusop Jikiri. Others, such as Nur Misuari, have been a constant spoiler to the peace process.

So, many in the MNLF see the delay in establishing a democratically elected government as a ploy by their rival MILF members to hold onto power.

The need for buy-in

Combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf continue in Sulu and Basilan. While kidnappings are down, they are a constant threat.

Likewise, operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes continue, and are met with retaliatory violence. Suicide bombings, both by Filipinos and foreign fighters, have become routine since 2018.

While the security situation is not dire, violence remains endemic. And one of the keys to ending the violence is the successful implementation of the peace process to serve as an off ramp for militants.

Duterte has signaled his approval for the three-year extension, and he commands enough support in Congress that it probably will happen.

Mujiv Hataman, long-time MNLF politician and former governor of the dissolved Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, has also endorsed the extension.

But he has called for a clear roadmap with dates and milestones to be quickly developed and publicized. He has also called for a public review of what the BTA has accomplished to date, and wants an assessment of shortcomings and areas of improvement based on feedback from the community and local government units.

If there is to be sufficient buy-in for the extension, there needs to be transparency and accountability. The public must be confident that it will result in the better provision of government services.

The peace process has plenty of opponents. A delayed transition to democracy could be another grievance for them to focus on. It cannot be mishandled.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and at Georgetown University in Washington. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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