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On the Philippines peace deal: What’s Bangsamoro?

Publication Date : 26-10-2012


The signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on October 15 establishing a new autonomous Muslim homeland in Mindanao, called Bangsamoro, officially ended more than 40 years of internecine wars in the country’s largest island region.

The agreement was hailed by the administration of President Benigno Aquino as paving the way “for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao”.

Clearly swept by a spell of euphoria, the president could not help soaring to rhetorical eloquence. “[The agreement] brings together all secessionist groups into the fold. No longer does the MILF aspire for a separate state,” he said. “This means that hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity for other citizens.”

He also said the establishment of Bangsamoro “will follow the constitutional process to ensure that the Philippines remains as one nation and one people, with all of our diverse cultures and narratives seeking the common goal….”

Not all were ecstatic, however. Some critics in the press excoriated the agreement as the “roadmap to the dismemberment of the republic”.

But in my view, the president is not an agent for the dismantling of the territorial integrity of this country to accommodate the demands of irredentist rebels seeking wide latitudes of autonomy from the central government. It is from this perspective that this space is examining the agreement.

Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF negotiating panel, was reported to be “in tears” while the president was addressing the nation. Iqbal had been negotiating with a succession of nine government panels for 11 years. Marvic Leonen, head of the government panel, explained the MILF’s decision to abandon its bid to set up a substate and instead agree to a political settlement with autonomy.

It appeared to Leonen that 40 years of fighting had taken a toll on the endurance of the secessionist movement, and, as a consequence, its leaders had now become pragmatic and disposed to seize the moment offered by government initiatives toward a political settlement that does not involve a zero-sum solution. In effect, Leonen was saying that the secessionist armed struggle had been so exhausted by decades of bloodletting in Mindanao at the expense of more than 100,000 lives, mayhem and destruction of productive economic assets in the legendary resource-rich island, such that the Moros were now suing for peace.

Let’s not swallow this line too easily. After reading documents from government sources involved in the negotiations, I am led to ask: Under whose terms was the agreement concluded? Who conceded more ground, the government or the MILF? From the documents I have in my hands, no side can claim to be the clear winner in this agreement.

MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim warned that while the Framework Agreement may be “a big leap forward, … it will not, by itself, end the Moro problem.” He add: “Much work still has to be done to make peace work. The forging of the Framework Agreement does not mean the end of the struggle for it [only] ushers in a new and more challenging stage.” Clearly, we are deluding ourselves if we consider the MILF as a spent force, or that the agreement is an automatic self-fulfilling covenant for “lasting peace” in Mindanao.

The text of the Framework Agreement declares the existence of a new political reality in the 66th year of this independent, democratic and constitutional republic—the establishment of the Bangsamoro entity inside the territorial confines of a state inhabited up to 1946 (when the republic was founded) by Filipinos 83 per cent of whom claim to be Roman Catholic and 4.6 per cent claim adherence to Islam.

The country has been ruled, at least since independence, by this Christianised majority and its political institutions, and heavily influenced by its dominant culture. How did the tiny Islamic minority survive in its Moro homeland this suffocating cultural and political imperialism based in the highly centralised national capital Manila, which is also the seat of power of the Archbishop of Manila, the highest ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church in the Philippines?

The Framework Agreement is an amazing testament to the enduring and inextinguishable struggle of Filipino Muslims for a homeland in what they claim their ancestral heritage. After 16 years of negotiations, the government and the MILF agreed to create Bangsamoro, the new autonomous political entity to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) established in 1989.

The agreement not only pronounced the demise of ARMM as a “failed experiment” but also proclaimed the birth of the creature Bangsamoro. It boldly declared that “the government of the Bangsamoro shall have ministerial form.” It dared to place Bangsamoro outside the constitutional framework of the highly centralised unitary system in place since the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935. It put Bangsamoro in a special category of the political system, not as a local government. Muslim Mindanao, with its own hierarchy of traditional rulers (the datu), does not have a long experience in ministerial form to make the new system work.

The political accommodation opened by the agreement attempts to shoehorn Muslim Mindanao’s interests into the conventional architecture of the constitutional system. It has opened a host of issues, most of all involving the relationship and power sharing between the central state and the substate Bangsamoro.


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