A deal to create a new Muslim autonomous region on the large southern Philippine island of Mindanao has raised high hopes of ending decades of fighting that have cost more than 150,000 lives, even as pervasive doubts persist as to how or if the arrangement will work.
With breakaway groups and local warlords still holding sway over significant stretches of jungle, the overriding question is whether rebellious Muslims will lay down their arms, as promised.
Both government and Muslim leaders heaped unreserved praise on the agreement reached yesterday that calls for giving Muslims broad powers while leaving the central government in charge of military and foreign policy. The name of the region would be “Bangsamoro," meaning Moro Nation – though officials said the Moros, as the area’s Muslims came to be called during three centuries of Spanish rule, would still be subject to Philippine law.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who engineered the deal hammered out in secret talks in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, described it in glowing terms in a television address broadcast nationwide from Malacañang, the presidential palace.
Mr. Aquino said what he called “a framework agreement” would bring “all secessionist groups into the fold” in a region never completely controlled either by the Spanish, or the Americans who drove out the Spanish in 1898. Revolt has simmered and flared ever since the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946 after more than three years of Japanese rule in World War II.
Deal to be signed Oct. 15
The deal is between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, by far the largest of the armed Muslim groups on Mindanao. The MILF includes about 20,000 members in an area with a population of more than 4 million people, most of them Muslim.
The breakthrough in the talks came when negotiators for the MILF stopped insisting that all their members would remain armed until the agreement really takes effect. “We now have a solution to our problem,” MILF Vice Chairman Ghazili Jaafar told local journalists yesterday. The agreement “has been accepted by a majority of the Bangsamoros,” he said.
Uncertainty crept into his comments, though, when he added, “Let’s hope that finally a final agreement will be signed.”
Negotiators are to sign the agreement Oct. 15 in Malacañang Palace under the eyes of Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, but that’s just the first step in a process that has to include a plebiscite among voters in the area covered by the agreement before it takes effect three or four years from now.
“It’s going to be tough,” says Laisa Alamia, regional chairwoman of the government’s Commission on Human Rights. “We have a government problem, a corruption problem,” she says. “There’s still a lot of work for all the stakeholders to do.”
Powerful clan leaders
The most intractable obstacle to lasting peace is that feuding factions are sure to want to find ways to guarantee their authority. Powerful clan leaders have long defied central government rule while reaching accommodations with Muslim groupings and enriching themselves and their extended families at the expense of citizens who rank among the nation’s poorest.
Among the most powerful are the family and followers of Andal Ampatuan, a former provincial governor on trial in Manila along with two of his sons and a number of others for the massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, nearly three years ago. The attack targeted supporters of a gubernatorial candidate who was running against Mr. Ampatuan.
Another recalcitrant Muslim leader, Nur Misuari, is running for governor of Sulu, an island chain off the southwestern tip of Mindanao.
Mr. Misuari was once the leader of a rival Muslim grouping, the Moro National Liberation Front, many of whose members were drawn to the government side after years of revolt. He himself was rewarded with an appointment as governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), encompassing five strife-torn provinces, before he was implicated in a bloody uprising and fled to Malaysia. After returning eventually to the Philippines, he was jailed for nearly a year before going free on bail.
Yet another grouping, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, has been killing, robbing, and kidnapping since breaking off from the MILF. And the most hard-line terrorists, the Abu Sayyaf, remain a threat with several hundred fighters in the Sulu archipelago and deep in Mindanao jungles.
Bangsamoro would replace and enlarge on the ARMM, which Aquino called “a failed experiment” since its founding more than two decades ago.
“The ARMM became a monster in itself,” says Wilnor Papa, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International here. “The new Bangsamoro will be taking lessons from where it failed.”