The Philippines

Why an autonomous Muslim region could be the best hope for peace

The Muslim-majority areas in southern Philippines are voting in a historic plebiscite, as the people decide whether to pursue greater autonomy for the conflict-hit region. Southeast Asia Globe speaks to an expert about the vote’s significance and what it means for peace in the Philippines

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January 22, 2019
Why an autonomous Muslim region could be the best hope for peace

By next week, the results of the first plebiscite on self-rule will be clear, marking the final step in a long struggle for a peaceful resolution in the south of the country. For the Moro people, Muslims who live in southern Philippines and make up the largest non-Catholic group in the country, it is a chance to vote for a new system of autonomy. If they back the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), it will see the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). A transitional government will then be formed that will include members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the area’s largest insurgent group, until fresh elections are held in 2022.

Both Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and MILF leaders have claimed that the law, which is widely expected to pass, is a path to peace in a part of the country that has been rocked by extremist insurgency groups, including armed militants who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman and former chair of the peace panel in the negotiations with the MILF, breaks down just what the law would mean for the Philippines’ Muslim minority.

Why is this vote so significant?

It is a necessary step to ratify the [BOL], and the outcome will determine the coverage of the autonomous Bangsamoro region. It is the last step needed to transform the MILF from a non-state actor to a state actor since they – that is, their leadership – will head the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. Moreover, the MILF will now have to decommission 30% of its combatants and weapons in compliance with the deliverables of Phase 2 of the Normalisation Annex. Another 35% will be decommissioned upon the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. A positive outcome also vindicates all those who supported the process since it manifests that this is the will of the populace.

It is widely believed that if the BOL passes, then it could lead to peace in an unstable region. How likely is it that this will lead to greater peace?

The ratification of the BOL through the plebiscite is in a way an affirmation of the MILF, which has chosen the peaceful path. It commits them to stay on this peaceful, political course and behooves them [to] deliver the fruits of meaningful self-governance. While other armed groups will continue to exist, the transformation of the biggest and most organised armed group into a governance partner takes away a large constituency from the war arena. Although sustainable development will take a long time, the incremental peace dividends will continue to help stabilise the situation. Nothing is guaranteed of course. Rather, everybody should help the MILF be able to govern well, to be inclusive, and to avoid the mistakes of the past autonomous government.

Bombed-out buildings and homes are seen in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017, days after the military declared the fighting against IS-inspired Muslim militants over Photo: Ted Aljibe / AFP
In what ways will BARMM be different to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was seen as something of a failure?

The parliamentary form of government [that the BARMM will adopt] is more representative and conducive to power sharing, unlike the winner-take-all system in the past. The Bangsamoro government will have significantly more resources coming from the central government in its initial years, and at the same time, it [will be] given more fiscal powers to generate its resources and utilise these accordingly.

The BARMM would benefit from the reforms that were [begun] in the ARMM some seven or eight years ago, as well as the enhanced environment for investments resulting from the relative peace achieved as a result of the signing of the peace agreement and the sustained ceasefire. The MILF is conscious that it must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Duterte is pushing to have a federal political system. How can that work alongside the BOL, and do the Bangsamoro people generally support federalism?

The shift to a federal system will need a lot more consensus building. It involves the whole nation – unlike the BOL, which wouldn’t pass at all if the whole nation voted. The transition and reforms in the Bangsamoro need not be held hostage to this more complicated and contentious process. What they achieve under autonomy can also serve as blueprint for a future federal Philippines. But this process is often muddled up by short term vested interests, and the MILF did well by insisting on a BOL first before the shift – if it happens at all under this president.

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