Duterte considers autonomy for restive Muslim province

Abdulla Almadani
Abdulla Almadani
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Since the time of former dictator President Ferdinand Marcos to the term of the immediate predecessor of the present president Benigno Aquino III, there has been a formal desire in the Philippines to find a peaceful solution of the Muslim insurgency in southern region of the country.

For more than a year now, a strong president by the name of Rodrigo Duterte sits in the Malacanian presidential palace in Manila, who claims his ancestors were Muslims from the province of Mindanao. This president may be the only one among his predecessors to have publicly admitted (in late November) that the Muslims of the Philippines have faced “historical injustice”.

He also promised to take corrective actions and revive the peace process, to control recent rise in violent incidents taking place in Marawi city — the most important Muslim city in the province of Mindanao.

It was the scene of fierce fighting between the army and police forces on the one hand and armed Muslim militants on the other, which resulted in about 1,100 deaths and massive destruction of property and infrastructure. He vowed to prevent ISIS-affiliated militias from establishing a stronghold in the Philippines after the terror group lost its stronghold in the Middle East.

Philippine President publicly admitted in late November that the Muslims of the Philippines have faced “historical injustice”

Dr. Abdulla Almadani

President Duterte has also promised to convene a special session of the Philippine Congress to pass a law on peace in the south of the country in the presence of the concerned parties. The Philippine President reiterated the need for ensuring the interests of the Republic, which was interpreted by observers that any solution should fall within the ambit of the existing state structure.

In other words, Manila could grant autonomy to the country’s Muslims without giving them the right to secede. Such an unprecedented promise by a Philippine leader compels us to look into the demands for succession in southern Philippine territories, to identify the developments and to review factors that prevented achieving the desired peace.

The historical context

The Moro National Liberation Movement has been engaged in an armed conflict with the Manila government since 1972 to establish a separate state in southern Philippines for the Muslims, under the pretext that the Catholic Christian majority of the country discriminated against them.

They sometimes make a historical argument by claiming that this part of the Philippines was in previous centuries an independent state and was attached to the current Republic of the Philippines by force and against the will of its people.

Despite many attempts at mediation made at different times by various Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya and Indonesia or by regional coalitions such as the ASEAN and OIC, and despite the numerous agreements signed between the rebels and the Manila government for either a ceasefire or to execute a program for the autonomy of the south within the Philippine state (such as the Tripoli-West Agreement of 1986, the 1987 Jeddah Agreement, and the 1995 Jakarta Agreement), the situation did not stabilize and armed confrontation between the rebels and the Philippine military forces did not stop. Plans for autonomy and for developing the region were stalled.

Factors behind past failures

We can attribute the failure here to several factors. First: disagreement over the nature of autonomy and its geographical borders, the lot of millions of Christians in the South, who live with Muslims. Second: lack of trust between the warring parties and accusations against each other of bad intentions.

Third, pressure on the central authority in Manila by the Christian majority and the army of succumbing to the demands of the rebels and the supposed ‘betrayal’ of the sacrifice of several civilians and military, killed in the conflict over the years. There is evidence to suggest that the Philippine Congress is apprehensive about legalizing the implementation of a peace agreement reached in 2014.

Fourth: the rebels themselves have had differences over the boundaries demarcated in the agreement and on various aspects of the solution, as is generally the case with armed movements when peace parleys take place. Most conditions are accepted by moderates and rejected by extremists.

The best evidence for this is what happened in 1996; when Manila signed a good agreement with the leader of the Moro National Liberation Movement. Professor Nur Misuari and some of his companions rejected it and split from the main group, forming the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led by Hashim Salamat (who died in 2003).

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He was succeeded by the current leader of the organization, Haj Murad Ibrahim. They have continued their armed struggle until their full demands of establishing of an independent entity are met. Ironically, what the “Islamic Moro” rebels had rejected years ago they accept now, which reminds us of what happened with the Palestinians.

Fifth, the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf movement and its claim of defending the Philippines Muslims’ rights and sabotaging the fragile peace in some areas; by blackmailing, threatening and kidnapping foreigners complicated the insurgency issue. Leaders of this movement recently pledges the allegiance of their leader to the terrorist group ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi welcomed this declaration and considered it as the beginning of establishing the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

Lastly, the adverse impact of foreign interventions further exacerbated the crisis. Libya, for example, had mediated between the government of the former President Marcos and the Muslim rebels, but at the same time provided support to the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf (who is called ‘Gaddafi Janglani’) — thus enabling this extremist group to emerge, sabotage and hinder the peace efforts.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Dr. Abdulla Almadani is a Bahraini academic researcher, specializing in International Relations and matters focusing on Asia. He tweets @abu_taymour.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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