Armed escort for presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, Mindanao.
Of the main candidates campaigning in the Philippines' 9 May election, it is the most controversial who seems to have the best chance of achieving peace for the war-torn Muslim region of Mindanao. If any other candidate wins, the peace process, described variously as "in limbo" and "stagnant," it is likely to stay that way. But even if it does continue, will other Islamist militant groups like Abu Sayyaf, and even ISIS, get in the way?
The candidate in question, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, is formally affiliated with the Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas-Lakas ng Bayan (Philippine Democratic Party-the People's Power, or PDP-Laban). He has drawn ire from many quarters with his insensitive remarks, most recently his contemptible public musing about an Australian woman raped and killed by escaping prisoners.
His tirades are objectionable, and they are unfortunate because the Mindanao mayor has a strong record in dealing with rebel groups. The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has negotiated with the Philippines government since 1997 for autonomy in the Muslim regions of the Mindanao island group, appears to regard him more positively than other candidates. They see him as being most capable of advancing the plan for a new 'Bangsamoro' – or 'Moro nation' – autonomous body.
This armed separatism has waxed and waned ever since the MILF's secular predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), waged a conventional war against the government in 1975. The MNLF's star faded as a result of factionalism and failure to get their way in the negotiations. The MILF began as a breakaway group from the MNLF around 1978 and expanded its forces by avoiding major confrontations with the Philippines military. It presented itself as the reasonable, pro-peace alternative to the MNLF. It made its presence felt in the 1990s, showing off its firepower and organisational strength to the media.
In 2000, the MILF had its first major military confrontation with government forces that ended in its defeat. The army captured its main camps and forced the armed group to shift to guerrilla warfare. The "total war" policy of then President Joseph Estrada was replaced when his successor President Gloria Arroyo – on the advice of the US, Malaysia, and Indonesia – decided to return to talks with the MILF. The result was a "memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain," which Arroyo tried to get the legislature to support. However, it was rejected by the Supreme Court. This decision caused a major split in the MILF. One of its commanders, Datu Umbra Kato, decided to form the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an Islamist militant group. The BIFF launched attacks against government troops and non-Muslim towns. But these setbacks only convinced the MILF to continue with the negotiations.
President Benigno Aquino III signed an agreement with the MILF in 2014 to establish this autonomous body. However, he failed to muster enough votes in Congress to ratify the deal and make it into law. Intense opposition from Mindanao politicians – both Muslims and non-Muslims – who worried this new body would erode their powers locally, has slowed down the legislative process. Worse, it grounded to a halt in January 2015, after some MILF units were involved in a military encounter with security forces sent to arrest or kill a Malaysian terrorist living in the rebels' territory. Forty-four police officers were killed in the Mamasapano clashes. The sight of their bodies elicited great anger in the capital Manila. This practically forced the government to shelve the project.
The fallout from the Mamasapano tragedy was enormous. Congress refused to move forward with the next step of the peace process: giving its imprimatur to the agreement by turning it into law. Anti-MILF Mindanao governors, mayors, and legislators doubled down in opposition, this time aided by Catholic parishes whose priests were also against the agreement.
The MILF, however, has several reasons to be optimistic about a Duterte presidency. First he identifies as "both Moro and Christian," saying that this gives him a better understanding of the separatist war. Second, he is from Mindanao, which has led supporters to conclude he will "address the plight of the minority Muslims in Southern Philippines." For that same reason, the MILF hopes Duterte will have the political clout to win over the recalcitrant or even anti-Muslim autonomy politicians.
The four other major candidates had hedged their bets when it came to the MILF rebellion. Senator Grace Poe, running under the Nationalist People's Coalition alliance, has hinted at reviving Estrada's all-out war policy. Manuel Roxas III, the current administration's candidate who is running under the Liberal Party, promised to continue what Aquino started. Vice President Jejomar Binay, running under the United Nationalist Alliance, has taken the side of anti-MILF forces. He has criticised the Aquino government for favouring the armed group at the expense of other political forces in the region.
That said, observers are optimistic that the MILF will return to the bargaining table no matter who wins on 9 May. The Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian and US governments have not wavered in their support for a decisive resolution of the separatist war. The scuttled 2014 agreement has already established some fundamentals for a revised version. It is one that Professor Zachary Abuza, an expert on the MILF, described as "a model peace process."
Alongside negotiations, the BIFF and Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf will continue with attacks on government troops and communities in the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf has been focusing efforts on kidnapping for ransom, with little other manifestation of its Islamist pretensions. Recently it beheaded a Canadian kidnapped on a tourist island in southeastern Mindanao.
There are talks about ISIS organisers operating in Abu Sayyaf areas, but it is doubtful the terrorist group can make any headway there. In 2005 to 2006, the MILF expelled Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) from Mindanao. JI's fundamentalist prosletysing clashed with the pragmatic folk Islam popular among Filipino Muslims. If this is any indication, Abu Sayyaf constituents are likely also to reject ISIS' worldview which, in the long run, would pose a challenge to local Islam.
The Philippines government has cause to worry about how an ISIS-Abu Sayyaf alliance could derail the peace process. Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to ISIS a number of times, though ISIS has yet to acknowledge these pledges. Abu Sayyaf's overtures may be more about securing arms and resources than a real commitment to ISIS' ideology, however.
Either way, the limited size of Abu Sayyaf's base of operations (three to four villages in the southeastern side of Basilan island) and the lingering inter-ethnic suspicions between Magindanaos, who dominate the MILF, and Tausugs, the dominant Muslim group in the Sulu Archipelago, could be effective deterrents to ISIS spreading elsewhere. The Philippine military, which has already been active against Abu Sayyaf, would work with regional partners and the US to contain the threat. In the long-term, therefore, these spoilers are not powerful enough to scuttle peace initiatives.