At long last, the MILF and MNLF have realised their goal: Self-governance for the Moro people who were deprived of participating in the political process for such a long time. The Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA), which is in control of executive and legislative powers during the transition period, is made up of 80 members. The majority is appointed by the MILF, while the remaining 39 are nominated by the central government. The body is in charge of preparing the region for the establishment of the soon-to-be regional government and parliament. Substantial efforts have to be made to support the recovery from civil war and building the institutional foundations necessary for sustainable peace.
Aftermath of the Moro conflict
The outcome of the more than four-decades long conflict on the island is tragic. Estimates for the conflict’s death toll since the beginning of the rebellion in 1972 are as high as 150,000. The conflict is of a regional nature, thus the direct economic costs for the first 30 years are – with an estimation of $ 2-3 billion – relatively low. However, due to the long period, the region has suffered other economic losses, such as the shortage of job opportunities, the insecurity of the agricultural sector, the lack of investors and development projects as well as the general capital flight. Factoring in these losses, as a World Bank paper does, the overall economic cost of the conflict in Mindanao could “conservatively” be raised well over $10 billion from 1975 to 2002.
The effect of this economic loss, on top of the already existing discrepancy of poverty between the north and the south of the Philippines, is apparent. A World Bank assessment in 2018 revealed that two out of five poor people in the Philippines lived in Mindanao, and over 50% of the population in what was previously known as ARMM lived below the poverty line. This is in stark contrast with the development of poverty in the rest of the Philippines, where poverty is decreasing. Mindanao’s indigenous and Muslim populations have been pushed to the margins of socio-economic and political development. It is of utmost importance to finally break through this “vicious circle” of poverty, political disempowerment and dispossession, which leads to conflict, which in turn deepens poverty and impedes the provision of government services. To overcome the difficult legacy of poverty and social injustice in the South, the BTA has the responsibility to boost the regional economy and offer social opportunities to the underprivileged people.
Furthermore, the island struggles with fulfilling the urgent needs of displaced people. Overall, more than 270,000 people are currently internally displaced in Mindanao. The reasons for displacement vary from armed conflicts, over clan feuds and land disputes, to natural disasters. This displacement goes hand in hand with various human rights concerns, such as the disruption of education for displaced children, the lack of employment opportunities or poor access to sanitation. In particular now, with Covid-19, these displaced people are the most vulnerable ones in the population.
Additionally, the BTA has to tackle the issue of demobilisation, as thousands of members of armed groups return back to civilian life. Demobilising, unarming and reintegrating former combatants is a major aspect of stabilising the area. The peace agreement intended to demobilise 30% of the MLF fighters immediately, 35% with the appointment of the transitional authority and the rest in 2022. The first 12,000 individuals have already surrendered their weapons, but with the outbreak of Covid-19 the disarming of the next segment has been delayed. Next to general resistance against laying down their arms, the risk of ex-combatants simply joining other armed groups is especially high if this step is not executed effectively.
Future Challenges for the BTA
Although a peace agreement has been reached with the MILF, an island-wide peace could not yet be established in Mindanao. Other armed groups, criminal gangs and family clans continue to fight each other, or the government. Apart from that, the legal concept of peace (as simply being the counter state to an armed conflict), has to be distinguished from a political peace. Genuine peace in the latter sense is more than just the absence of hostilities. It is security, social stability and the opportunity to live free from fear and oppression. Strong democratic institutions are necessary to provide individuals with just and equal ways of living. The transitional authority of Bangsamoro faces major challenges in this regard.
Since both the MNLF and the MILF have entered peace agreements with the government, and thereby abandoned the idea of complete political independence, some insurgents have felt betrayed and established splinter groups that continue the fight for absolute political freedom. In other cases, armed groups have turned to terrorist activities, such as the ASG and the Maute group, which have now both pledged alliance to the Islamic State. In 2017, the city Marawi in Mindanao was invaded by ISIS, which subsequently declared a caliphate. Although the Philippine government regained control after a few months, fighters of the Islamic State are still present on the island. Besides governmental conflicts with armed groups, the ongoing clashes in Mindanao are characterised by horizontal violence between armed gangs, kidnap-for-ransom groups and clan feuds (known as rido). The International Crisis Group has identified the death of 20 and the displacement of 2,000 people in 2019 alone as a result of rido incidents. In order to restore the rule of law in Mindanao, the BTA has to build a strong governance system that is able to fight lawlessness and violent extremism.
Further key challenges, that the BTA needs to address are the passing of essential pieces of legislation on elections and education, delivering public services, managing relations with the central government and ensuring representation of all communities in Mindanao. This especially includes providing political participation of Christians and of the different groups of non-Islamised and non-Malay speaking indigenous people (collectively referred to as Lumads), who have also suffered displacement, discrimination and exploitation throughout the history of the country. With the obtainment of self-determination and the power over local politics, it is important to set up a parliamentary form of government that not only considers Muslim concerns but is inclusive of other communities within the territory.
Lastly, “meeting the Moro people’s expectations is the biggest challenge”, as MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim has previously said. The causes for the conflict in Mindanao were the social and political alienation of the Muslim population as well as their economic disenfranchisement. The dispossession and absence of social progress in the South was aptly described by International Alert: “National governments were generally aware that problems existed in Mindanao, but few presidents gave it priority. Mindanao was more often considered as a means to an end: a solution for the problem of rural unrest in the north, a source of raw materials for export (…).” The struggle for political inclusion, as well as recognition of the Moro culture and religion have been finally accepted by the central government. Now that Bangsamoro is autonomous, it is crucial how the BTA will address the historical injustices and grievances in the population to strengthen the fragile peace.