Posted on: 30th March 2015
Since the beginning of 2015 there has been a growing sense of unease about the prospects of peace in the southern Philippines region of Mindanao, amid a surge in violence that has left over 120,000 people displaced.
Friday 27 March 2015 marked the first anniversary of the signing of the historic Bangsamoro peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to create the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). However, a botched operation conducted on 25 January 2015 by the Philippine Special Action Force (SAF) put the peace process in jeopardy.
The operation in the town of Mamasapano in Mindanao was intended to capture a number of known terrorists, including Zulfiki Bin Hir (who goes by the alias 'Marwan') and Abdul Basit Usman, after intelligence suggested that both men were training Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to prepare explosive devices. However, the MILF was not given notice of the raid, and 44 police commandos as well as a number of members of the MILF and BIFF were killed.
It has since been confirmed that 'Marwan', a member of Jamaah Islamiyah, the group behind the Bali bombings in 2002, was killed in the operation but Usman escaped. It is now reported that Usman is being sheltered by the BIFF.
The BIFF want to create an Islamic state in Mindanao.
The BIFF was formed from a group of around 4,000 separatists who rejected the peace agreement and split from the MILF. The agreement was to establish an autonomous region called Bangsamoro with semi-sovereign powers, but under the sovereignty of the Philippine government. The BIFF opposed this measure, wanting to establish an Islamic state in Mindanao.
After a series of negotiations the agreement was repackaged into a bill to be presented to the two-chamber Congress of the Philippines for approval; the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The proposal would create a regional body called the Bangsamoro (Moro Nation), instead of the proposed ARMM. The draft bills are due to be debated in Congress in April, but due to the recent disturbances few observers expect the law to pass before legislators break for a recess in June.
The violent and political repercussions of the incident in Mamasapano raid have continued apace, presenting severe obstacles to the continuation of the peace process.
While the MILF and the Senate have now both submitted reports on the Mamasapano incident, the reports have differing conclusions, although the MILF chairman previously suggested that some members of his group, who were involved in the attack, had committed violations against the peace agreement and ceasefire. The MILF report justified the shooting of the police commandos saying that they fired first, breaking the ceasefire agreement, whereas the Senate report maintains that the Mamasapano incident was clearly "a massacre".
President Aquino: "the Bangsamoro shall form a perimeter against the spread of extremism".
But in a speech on 27 March 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement, President Benigno S. Aquino III said that the "Bangsamoro shall form a perimeter of vigilance against the spread of extremism". Addressing concerns over the stalling of the peace agreement, the President announced that he was inviting influential citizens to a National Peace Summit to discuss the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and asked them to submit a report that would be made public.
However, the main concern since January has been the scale of the battle between the Philippines military and the BIFF, which has led to a large number of people being internally displaced.
The Philippine government launched a full military offensive against the BIFF in early February 2015 in the province of Maguindanao in Mindanao. After an engagement on 29 March 2015, in which 12 members of the BIFF and four Filipino soldiers were killed, the head of the armed forces announced a halt to the offensive. In total it has been reported that at least 139 BIFF fighters have been killed, 53 injured and 12 arrested since January 2015, and with at least 10 Filipino soldiers killed in addition to the 44 police commandos.
The issue of the internally displaced people in the majority Muslim Mindanao province due to the fighting between government forces and the BIFF has now become pressing. The UNHCR reported on the 20 March 2015 that the renewed conflict since January had now forced more than 120,000 people from their homes, while the regional Mindanao government put the figure at over 125,000, living in 75 temporary sites, including schools and madrassas.
Over 120,000 people internally displaced in Mindanao by the fighting since January.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that in total almost 4 million people have been displaced in Mindanao since 2000, due to a combination of armed conflict, crime and violence and clan violence. Breaking down the displacement in Mindanao since January 2015, the IDMC estimate 87,000 people displaced in the ARMM, 31,200 in Western Mindanao, 300 in Northern Mindanao, 7,000 in Central Mindanao and 1,400 in Caraga.
In addition, international aid agencies have faced the challenge of requiring special permission to operate in the conflict region, with the International Red Cross saying that the "unstable security situation makes it difficult to assist the displaced".
It has now been three months since the Mamasapano incident, but even with the latest halt to the fighting and steps being taken to preserve the peace process, there is still a lot at stake. The BIFF remain opposed to the peace agreement, and maintain their desire for an Islamic state. Furthermore, the MILF and the government still dispute what happened in January. It is probably too early to gauge the long-term effect of this new 'ceasefire'. However, if it holds, the people of Mindanao might at least be able to start returning to their homes. The outcome of the peace agreement may have to wait a little longer.