Regional building of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in Cotabato City, Philippines. Photo by: George Parrilla / CC BY

In early August 2008, a high-level Philippine government delegation was preparing for an official trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The group had made several similar journeys over the years, but there was special enthusiasm this time around. Planning the same trip were the most senior members of the diplomatic corps in the Philippines, including the American, Japanese and Australian ambassadors. It was the kind of formal assembly reserved for only the most momentous occasions: An international event designed to arouse global attention to a political breakthrough.

After years of playing the role of peace facilitator, Malaysia was hosting the signing of an historic agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which would create a special territory in the southern Philippines and usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation following years of conflict.

But just one day before Philippine government officials and MILF representatives were to put their pens to paper, the Philippine Supreme Court in Manila abruptly stopped the signing through a temporary restraining order. And just days after that, reacting to the Supreme Court’s move, MILF forces were launching an armed offensive against the government, occupying towns across central Mindanao, and setting off a wave of violence that would displace about 750,000 people and leave 400 dead.

No trip. No signing. No agreement. And Muslim Mindanao would be stuck squarely back in the cycle of marginalization and violence that has long characterized this region of the world.

Just how a landmark agreement can go from the signing table to the waste bin in a matter of days continues to baffle even the closest observers, but it begins to capture the torturous on-again, off-again negotiations and mired attempts at peace and development in Muslim Mindanao.

Since the debacle of 2008, both the Philippine government under the administration of President Benigno Aquino and MILF have recommitted themselves to the peace process. On March 27, 2014, both parties signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which paves the way for the establishment of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro, replacing the current local political structure known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. In order for this to happen, the Bangsamoro Basic Law — which is still being drafted by the Aquino government and will define the relations between local government units, the Bangsamoro government and the central government — must be ratified by Congress.  

There is a tremendous optimism over the new agreement among all parties involved, but there’s also a great deal of risk and caution. The main question for many: What has fundamentally changed that differentiates this peace process from those that preceded it?

A basic but very important factor is the sincerity and preparation from both sides. From the early days of his administration, Aquino has been dedicated to the pursuit of peace, and he assembled a team of negotiators and experts to achieve it. Likewise, MILF came to the table organized and invigorated.

“We are not starting from scratch,” contends Amina Rasul-Bernardo, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, who is also a member of the Brookings Institution Task Force on U.S. Foreign Policy Toward the Islamic Countries, citing the 1996 agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front, which was based on the Tripoli Agreement and thus served to improve upon the terms of autonomy.

“Further, the government and the MILF have learned from the mistakes of the past,” she said.

One of those mistakes has been a failure to conduct truly inclusive and consultative negotiations among all affected parties. This was one of the downfalls of the 2008 accord. While analysts agree that this latest peace process has been far more effective at bringing Mindanao’s many divergent groups and interests into the fold, several groups remain outside of the process.

One of those groups is the Moro National Liberation Front, which in September 2013 attacked Zamboanga City, causing more than 64,000 people to flee and leaving 17,000 still in need of humanitarian support. To date, MNLF and its leadership refuses to acknowledge the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, so there remains a lot of uncertainty over how the CAB and the 1996 agreement will be reconciled.  

Cities such as Zamboanga, with a Christian majority but sizeable Muslim minority, were decidedly against the 2008 agreement, fearing the encroachment of Moro autonomy, so it’s natural to ask where these divided communities and the politicians representing them stand today. Indeed, there is a formidable bloc in the Philippine Congress that will be quick to cry constitutional violations. So, as the Bangsamoro Basic Law is passed to Congress, Aquino is going to have play ball to get and keep legislators onside. There’s an assortment of other landmines and threats as well, ranging from more radical MILF offshoots like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters to longstanding territorial disputes like Sabah.

The development implications here are huge. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is the least developed region in the country. The most recent poverty incidence data classifies half of the total population as poor against the national average of approximately 20 percent. About 50 percent are also illiterate. The health and education infrastructure is broken. By most accounts, since the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF that helped formalize ARMM, the overall poverty situation has actually worsened.

The international donor community, including the three biggest donors to the Philippines — the World Bank, Japan and the United States — remain highly engaged in the region. The World Bank, through the multidonor Mindanao Trust Fund it manages, helped draft the Bangsamoro Development Plan and establish the Bangsamoro Development Agency. Japan is ready to aggressively expand its development portfolio in the region through the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development, or J-BIRD program, and other community-level programs. Meanwhile, as the U.S. Agency for International Development scales back Mindanao-wide funding and wraps up its well known Growth with Equity in Mindanao program, which started back in 1995, the Americans will now concentrate local governance and civic engagement support in conflict-affected areas.

These development institutions, funds and expertise should make a difference, but even with the signing of the CAB and passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, donors and development organizations will be forced to confront more nuanced security and operational challenges.

In an extensive report titled “The Contested Corners of Asia,” The Asia Foundation warned that “despite large amounts of aid for more than a decade, Mindanao’s conflict environment has not improved.” Highlighting intercommunal competition as a primary problem for aid delivery and impact, the nonprofit international development organization also concluded that “conflict is so entrenched that the successful restoration of peace and stability will require a significant period — possibly decades — which is much longer than aid project cycles.”

Moro Mindanao has a long history of violence and instability, but there’s an unprecedented level of trust and commitment from all sides that holds the potential to foster an inclusive and durable peace before the Aquino administration leaves office in 2016. There’s reason to be optimistic; there’s reason to be cautious.

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About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.