There has been a steady trickle of information from the government of the Philippines in recent months over the next steps in an apparently stalling peace process for the southern region of Mindanao. Muslim Mindanao, a part of the island that is over 90 per cent Muslim, has seen decades of conflict led by separatist and Islamist groups. An agreement in 1996 to create the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) failed to bring an end to the fighting. It was hoped that an agreement in 2014 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government would fare better.
The deal that was reached would establish a region called Bangsamoro, which would have semi-sovereign powers, but under the sovereignty of the Philippines government. Following a number of further negotiations, the ARMM was repackaged as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which has subsequently been debated in Parliament.
A stalling peace process has left over 120,000 people displaced.
The process suffered a setback in January 2015 when an anti-terrorism raid by the Philippine security forces aimed at capturing a number of known Islamist militants resulted in the deaths of 44 police commandos, and a number of suspected militants escaping. The disturbances that followed between separatist groups and the government led to over 120,000 people being displaced in the region and stalled the peace process for the first few months of the year. The operation was intended to capture a number of militants who had rejected the deal, wishing instead to establish an independent Islamic state in the region.
Such talk has rung alarm bells across the region, amid concerns over the potential infiltration of ISIS into South East Asia. Indeed, two groups in the region, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who are against the peace process, and the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, pledged allegiance to ISIS late in 2014, although that allegiance has not been accepted by the ISIS leadership. Armed forces chiefs in the Philippines have also maintained that ISIS do not operate in the country.
While the Bangsamoro Basic Law made steady progress through Congress early in 2015, certain groups have been determined to undermine the process. The BIFF is one such group, reportedly made up of around 4,000 members. The BIFF broke away from the MILF when the former rejected the peace agreement proposed in 2014. The group's opposition was to the region being under the Philippines government administration, instead wanting to create an Islamic state in Mindanao.
In March 2015, the Philippines saw the first anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement, but the longer the Law takes to pass through the Philippines Senate, the more frustration there will be. This has already been witnessed in the region, with reports that other groups are now forming in Mindanao to oppose the peace process, and which are also calling for total independence. One of these groups is the League of Bangsamoro Organisation, which is calling on the people of Mindanao to reject the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and demand full independence.
The length of time that the Bangsamoro Basic Law took to pass through the House of Representatives, with every component being debated and amended, meant the Senate was unable to pass the Law by the time it closed for recess on 11 June 2015. The Senate is due to convene again towards the end of July 2015. This has served as a frustration to all parties, not only the MILF, but also to President Benigno Aquino, who had made it one of his priorities to pass the law for Mindanao before his term of office ends in 2016.
The longer the process continues, the more disengagement there will be.
On 15 June 2015 President Aquino took the opportunity to rally support for the Bangsamoro Basic Law, while it awaited approval by the House of Representatives. On the same day, the MILF showed its commitment to the process by decommissioning some of its weapons. However, recent polls have shown that residents are doubtful that the Bangsamoro Basic Law will be passed before President Aquino steps down.
There are positive aspects to these delays. One is that the majority of the senior members of the MILF have been patient and maintain that the only way for the Bangsamoro Basic Law to be passed is for the ongoing peace process to take its course. However, reports have emerged that some commanders of the MILF are beginning to question the peace deal and the length of the process.
This delay is proving to be a major stumbling block, as demonstrated by the rise in reported attacks by the BIFF against the Philippines military in recent months. The longer the process goes on without resolution, the more likely it is that disengagement will grow, resulting in the rise of more groups opposed to it.
The majority Muslim region of Mindanao has seen years of unease, and communities and groups on all sides have been wanting to celebrate the long awaited peace agreement. Unfortunately, despite great hopes in 2014, the longer the negotiations continue, the less likely they are to resolve the conflict.