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Asia

Agreement on Philippine Muslim self-rule bill to end insurgency

Philippine President Benigno Aquino is set to receive a draft bill to create a Muslim autonomous area. Analysts say that the law will end a decades-long insurgency, but only if successfully implemented.

On Friday, August 15, a joint statement by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stated that both parties had resolved "crucial issues" in the draft bill of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a piece of legislation outlining what will be a Muslim self-rule region within the country.

The proposed legislation comes after the MILF and the Philippine administration of President Benigno Aquino signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March this year, 40 years after the outbreak of a Muslim separatist conflict in Mindanao, the country's second biggest and southernmost major island.

Mindanao is home to the biggest and most relevant Muslim minority in the archipelago, the indigenous Moro people. According to the draft law, the Autonomous Government of Bangsamoro will build on the powers of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Created in 1989, the ARMM is composed of five predominantly Muslim provinces and is the only region that has its own government.

Bangsamoro, however, will have more autonomous powers, particularly regarding politics and the economy, as well as "more territory, outside of and adjacent to ARMM," Ramon Casiple, director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in the Philippines, told DW.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino speaks during a weapon distribution ceremony at the armed forces headquarters in Quezon city, Metro Manila August 14, 2014.

President Benigno Aquino III has put his political weight behind the deal and wants to see the deal implemented before the end of his term

Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's country representative in the Philippines and a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team that oversees the implementation of the agreements, says that deal emphasizes that the relation between the central government and the future territory is "asymmetric", adding that the autonomous region has a "special status under the constitution."

As an example, Rood says Bangsamoro will see the strengthening and expanding the jurisdiction of the courts currently operating under the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines.

The Asia Foundation's analyst adds that the draft legislation is "an attempt to recognize the Moros' identity and sense of historical injustice while respecting existing vested rights in the region." It's important to point out, however, that while Muslims make up the majority of the population in the region, there are Christians and other indigenous peoples as well.

Troubled history

The deal has been welcomed in a region plagued by systemic violence since the insurgency began in the 1970s, claiming the lives of an estimated 150,000 people so far, according to experts. The conflict originated in the aftermath of what was known as the 1968 Jabidah Massacre, when between 60 and 100 Muslim military recruits were killed. In response, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1971 by Nur Misuari, a former political science lecturer at the University of the Philippines, to establish an independent Moro nation.

However, differences among rebel leaders led to the formation of the MILF in 1984, a splinter group originally seeking to create a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Since the MILF initially refused to participate in peace talks, the then government of President Fidel Ramos engaged instead in negotiations with the MNLF, resulting in a peace treaty in 1996.

The deal sought to increase the powers of self-rule for the Muslim minority in the southern Philippines and led to Misuari being elected regional governor of the ARMM. But the MNLF leader accused Manila of failing to increase the powers granted to the ARMM, and unrest followed again. In the meantime, the Philippine government began peace negotiations with the rival MILF, which is believed to have overtaken the MNLF as the largest Muslim rebel group in the country.

Protesting against what they claimed was the way the government had dealt with the 1996 peace deal and being sidetracked politically, some MNLF members staged a series of attacks in the city of Zamboanga in September last year. The standoff between the Philippine army and the rebels lasted until the end of the month, claiming the lives of at least 132 people and affecting some 158,000 others.

Ground-breaking deal

Even though the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is a "groundbreaking deal," says Casiple, it does not include the MNLF or any of the smaller more extremist groups in the region, such as Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which have recently pledged alliance to the Islamic State fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Rood believes that these "core members" of the organizations are unlikely to be appeased at all by the Bangsamoro deal. This is why he expects them to continue their attacks and kidnappings, an efficient way to raise funds for their operations.

A small victory

For President Benigno Aquino, "the strictly political impact of this success is muffled," says Rood, given the various scandals over the budget and the arrests of various senators for corruption charges.

An armed soldier walks on July 22, 2014 in the town proper of Datu Salibo, Mindanao, Philippines.The Filipino military have reported that 18 people have been killed after Fighting broke out between the Philippine army and a breakaway Muslim rebel group in the country's south killed.

Steven Rood says that "core members" of more extremist Islamic groups, such as Abu Sayyaf and BIFF won't be appeased by the deal and will continue with their attacks and kidnappings

However, he adds, a failure would have a larger political impact, and that "chalking up a win does preserve the president's momentum on his overall agenda."

Rood stresses that the roadmap is centered on a timeframe for early 2015, and that there is no "plan B" in case there are delays. Nonetheless, he adds, it is unlikely that any future president would want to disrupt the process. Nor would Congress since both Houses have promised to act quickly on approving the bill, with a date set for early next year. Another possibility, Rood says, is that a legal challenge may be taken up to the Supreme Court. "While I don't expect the law to be struck down, the judicial process might take some time," he points out.

The constitutionality of the bill has been questioned before, but both Casiple and Rood believe that the legal language is sound. "The agreement has been vetted by leading constitutionalists and retired Supreme Court justices, so it does not appear that any particular aspects of the agreement are unconstitutional," Rood explains.