Can Philippine President Duterte be a peacemaker?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with a wanted Muslim rebel leader who emerged after three years of hiding in an effort to jump-start a peace process.

Nickee Butlangan/Reuters
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (l.) shook hands with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, after a court suspended a warrant for Misuari's arrest, at Jolo, in the southern Philippines, Thursday.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte may be known for his brutal war on drugs and insults hurled at foreign leaders, but on Thursday, he attempted to solidify a different image as a peacemaker by meeting with a key rebel leader charged with leading a bloody rebellion three years ago.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari emerged from hiding after his arrest warrant was suspended by the court recently to facilitate his meeting with Mr. Duterte. The two discussed methods to jump-start the peace process and end the five-decade insurgency in the country’s troubled Mindanao region, according to Reuters.

“Just allow me to reiterate my sense of gratitude to the President and my promise that should he need our cooperation in his campaign for peace, you can count on us, Mr. President,” Mr. Misuari said, as reported by Philippine publication Rappler.

While it may seem contrary that the same leader who is spearheading the nationwide peace process also espouses a controversial war on drugs that has killed more than 2,000 people, the dual roles that Duterte plays may not be mutually exclusive. Despite wariness about his strategies potentially violating human rights, his strong hand methods and record in bringing peace to one of the most violent cities in the Philippines when he was mayor of Davao City are seen by some as assets that may help him finally clinch the long-sought peace deals in the country.

“The first job of the president is not to go to war but rather to bring peace in this country,” Duterte said in July, as reported by Rappler. “My job is to bring peace. My job is to talk to the enemies of the state, to the Communist Party of the Philippines, to the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), and to the men, and see if I could make a difference in our lives.”

The majority Roman Catholic country has seen instability in its Muslim-dominated southern region for decades as multiple militant groups battle for influence. Since the 1970s, armed conflicts have left more than 120,000 dead and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group associated with Al Qaeda, also operates in the area and is notorious for kidnapping for ransom.

Over the years, peace deals have been signed and stalled. Misuari’s group, which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, attacked Zamboanga City in 2013 to protest against what they see as the government’s failure to honor the deal. The battle displaced 100,000 people and killed 218 others, according to the Philippine Inquirer.

In 2014, a peace deal 17 years in the making between the government and largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – a breakout of Misuari’s group – was signed, but stalled in congress.

This is where Duterte steps in. Other than meeting with Misuari, Duterte has initiated peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA,) has waged guerilla wars in the countryside that killed more than 3,000 in the past eight years, according to private intelligence firm Stratfor. The relationship Duterte has with some of the leaders and his appointment of those figures to his cabinets are seen as possible paths to peace. But it’s still a tricky deal as a ceasefire broke down following skirmishes between the two in May.

Both the MILF and MNLF have welcomed Duterte’s election as he promised to push through with the peace deal. He also promised to provide more autonomy to the region as part of Duterte’s plan to bring federalism into the country, as Anna Tasnim Basman and Steven Rood pointed out in an analysis for the Asia Foundation.

These relationships that Duterte has, as well as his history of dealing with Muslim citizens and record as mayor, suggest Duterte can be a "game changer" for peace in Mindanao, Bilveer Singh, associate professor at the National University of Singapore wrote in an analysis in May.

"After decades of missed opportunities, Filipinos have elected a man who is a deliverer," he wrote. "More important is that what Duterte has to do is not driven by rhetoric but the right thing to do."

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