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Regional Autonomy: Potential Peace in the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, might be able to change the Philippines for the better– but not with his war on drugs, or his controversial foreign policy. Rather, Duterte’s legacy may come from signing into law comprehensive legislation to establish an autonomous region in the most violent and impoverished region of the Philippines, achieving something that none of his predecessors have been able to. Conflict between Muslim secessionist groups and the majority-Catholic Philippine state has consumed the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. Recently, Duterte signed into law the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), establishing an autonomous region in Mindanao, giving the right to self-govern to local leaders and providing economic autonomy from the rest of the Philippines. After decades of violence and hostility, the granting of autonomy to the Bangsamoro region should reduce the amount of conflict between Muslim secessionist groups and the Philippine government, thus allowing political stability and economic growth to develop.

The fight for autonomy by the Muslim peoples, also known as the Moro, springs from a history of colonialism and oppression. Native to the Southern Philippines, the Moro resisted colonization and religious conversion by the Spanish, who nevertheless weakened indigenous Sultanates. Subsequent colonization by the United States promoted the settlement of Christians and the displacement of Muslims, initiating conflicts over land rights. Following World War II, the creation of an independent Philippine Republic failed to promote the rights of Filipino Muslims. In 1968, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded as the first organized Muslim secessionist group and subsequently entered into conflicts against the Philippine government. Since then, a different secessionist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has been the primary rebel group in Mindanao, with other extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, and the Islamic State establishing a presence in Mindanao.

Regional conflicts have claimed at least 120,000 lives, becoming an unresolved national issue until recent legislation passed the legislative bodies of this current administration. Peace negotiations have been ongoing between MILF and the government, culminating in the BOL. This legislation would essentially expand and improve upon the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), long castigated as ineffective in fulfilling the autonomy sought by secessionist groups. In comparison to ARMM, BOL would grant a greater degree of political and economic autonomy to the region. At the end of January, 85% of Muslims in the Southern Philippines voted in favor of creating the new autonomous region. In a following vote on February 7th, some provinces voted to reject the inclusion of 6 municipalities into the new autonomous region, indicating that the votes of citizens would be respected by the new governing body.

If autonomy through ARMM failed to deliver peace, then how could Duterte’s efforts in the Bangsamoro region be any more effective? Much of the violence in the region results from armed rebellion by MILF and other Islamic groups against the Philippine government over territorial disputes and offensives by the government to assert control over MILF territory and camps, with civilians caught in the crossfire and forced to flee their homes. What makes the Bangsamoro law considerably different from the ARMM is MILF’s promise to demobilize over 30,000 MILF fighters in exchange for autonomy in the region. This promise, made by MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, may be the key to establishing lasting peace in the region should it suspend armed conflict between MILF and the Philippine government. This would allow for the restoration of civilian livelihoods and the opportunity to build a cohesive political structure, without widespread fighting disrupting the region. However, despite peace between MILF and the Philippine government, the rise of Islamic extremist groups still poses the largest challenge to peace. MILF is committed to fighting these extremists, incentivized by its desire to repress any challenges to MILF’s authority and to demonstrate to the Philippine government that MILF deserves the autonomy it has been given. MILF’s public statements against extremism demonstrate the group’s desire to establish firm, nonviolent rule over the region.

The exchange of rebel demobilization for autonomy would not have been made unless the Philippine government actually delivered on its agreement to grant a more comprehensive and true sovereignty than what is currently in place in the ARMM. Corruption schemes and fraudulent government officials have undermined political credibility in the current ARMM, thus rendering the current political system ineffective in governing. In contrast to ARMM, which operates as a unitary government, the new Bangsamoro region will have a parliamentary-democratic government with residents of the region electing their representatives, preceded by a transitional government headed by MILF until formal elections in 2022. With MILF leadership in place during the transitional period, the Bangsamoro law thus prevents power vacuum-induced violence because MILF has considerable influence over the region as the negotiating body for the Bangsamoro region, and it has received overwhelming support in the form of 1.7 million votes by regional residents for the Bangsamoro law. Political stability is thus a foreseeable possibility, as long as MILF commits to the reduction in armed conflict during this transitional period and residents express political efficacy by voting for parliamentary members who represent their voices.

Autonomy will likely promote economic development in the country’s poorest region as well. In 2015, the poverty incidence among families in the Mindanao region was 48.2%, compared to the national average of 16.5%. Violence has displaced families, destroyed cities and infrastructure, and disrupted opportunities for economic development. However, the reduction of violence could be the opportunity for the Bangsamoro region to become increasingly integrated with the rest of the Philippine economy. Under the Bangsamoro Organic Law, Bangsamoro will be given fiscal autonomy, with generated revenue flowing to the region rather than the Philippine government. The Bangsamoro government will receive 75% of regional taxes and the Philippine government will pour 5 billion pesos ($95 million USD) into the region annually for the next 10 years in the form of a block grant. Investment in the region will provide the Bangsamoro region with opportunities to rebuild infrastructure, develop industries, and create employment opportunities and stable livelihoods for citizens. The significant increase in economic autonomy is an aspect not seen in the framework of the previous autonomous region and could contribute to ending the reproduction of poverty.

As a current political development, the outcome of the Bangsamoro law remains to be seen. However, the breakthrough of such significant legislation after years of failed negotiations implies a critical moment in the long and rocky history of the Muslim people of the Philippines. Militarism has not achieved the goal of autonomy, and has only led to civilian casualties and violence. If MILF maintains its commitment to creating a fairly-elected government, curtails economic and political corruption, and counteracts Islamic extremism, the Bangsamoro law may prove to have a lasting impact on the Philippines. MILF’s investment in the transition from rebellion to peaceful governance should provide a bridge to stability due to MILF’s commitment to autonomy and the influence it holds over the region. After years of conflict, the Bangsamoro region will finally see paths towards resolution and prosperity, with the opportunity to self-govern, recognize, and address the grievances and needs of Filipino Muslims in Mindanao.

Photo:”Bangsamoro plebiscite vote