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Autonomy referendum 'not a silver bullet'

January 22, 2019

Muslims in the southern Philippines voted on Monday in a referendum to create a new autonomous region that seeks to end decades of unrest there. DW spoke to analyst Joseph Franco about the implications of the vote.

Philippinen Marawi - Menschen kehren zurück in Ihre Häuser nach dem Kämpfte zwischen Staatstruppen und IS die Stadt verwüsteten
Image: Reuters/E. De Castro

People from predominantly Muslim areas of the mainly Catholic Philippines  participated in a plebiscite on Monday to decide whether power should be devolved to a locally elected administration in one of Southeast Asia's most conflict-torn regions.  

Results are expected no later than January 26. If the measure is approved, a second referendum on February 6 will ask residents of Lanao del Norte province and seven towns in North Cotabato province with a sizeable Muslim population to decide whether they want to join the new region, called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARRM) as well.

Read more: Philippines: Muslims vote in autonomy referendum

The referendum is the culmination of a tumultuous peace process between the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and successive governments, aimed at ending the region's brutal conflict that has killed at least 120,000 people since the 1970s.

Joseph Franco, an expert on extremism and counterinsurgency at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, says in a DW interview that he remains skeptical about the prospect of lasting peace returning to the region on account of the referendum. 

Filipino Muslims vote on autonomy

DW: How do you see the Philippine government's decision to hold this referendum in Mindanao?

Joseph Franco: I must clarify that the referendum was part of a pre-Duterte (Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte) peace agreement, the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014.

It's actually long delayed because public opinion shifted against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) around 2015 when the Mamasapano incident (On January 25, 2015, 44 elite cops were killed in a bloody firefight with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano) nearly scuttled the peace agreement. 

If people vote in favor of more autonomy, what powers will be devolved to the region's parliament and government?

The new political entity would differ from the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by granting more resource/wealth-sharing mechanisms. There will also be a new Bangsamoro-level legislature and executive branch.

How will such devolution impact the Philippines' federal structure?

The Philippines remains a presidential and central government. It is not a federal government. Aside from the ARMM, there is only one autonomous region, the CAR, up in Northern Luzon. They seem to have no immediate need to push for expanded autonomy.

Marawi Philippinen Zusammenstöße Soldaten Islamismus
The region's brutal conflict has killed at least 120,000 people since the 1970sImage: picture-alliance/AA/J.Maitem

Many hope that this referendum will likely put an end to decades of deadly conflict in the region. What's your take on this? Are you optimistic?

Not really. It is not a silver bullet. The fact is, the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is only one of the first steps toward creating a new political entity. It is the precursor for the complete and meaningful disarmament and demobilization of the MILF.

But the question now is whether the MILF rank and file would accept it. We need to remember that the MILF's precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed an agreement with Manila in 1996 and a lot of folks from the latter ended up with the MILF.

So aside from the uncertainty of whether the MILF will play ball, one must also take into account that there are several groups outside of the scope of the BOL and the 2014 CAB. There is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which is a splinter group of the MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which never even attempted to talk peace with Manila. 

How will the vote affect relations between Muslims and Christians in the region?

It's a tricky question. There is already scaremongering in the Christian-dominated cities of the prospective Bangsamoro. Lots of rumors and misconceptions are circulating, for instance, that they would be subjected to Shariah.

Joseph Franco Sicherheitsexperte aus Singapur
Franco: 'There is already scaremongering in the Christian-dominated cities of the prospective Bangsamoro'Image: RSIS

It doesn't help that some local MILF commanders are exercising thuggish tactics to promote the Yes vote. On the other hand, the No vote also had some thuggish partisans on their side. So it's still uncertain what the BOL holds for future Muslim-Christian relations.

And we shouldn't forget the "lumad" or the indigenous groups of Mindanao. They have always been sidelined when Mindanao's future is discussed. How the BOL is operationalized would probably affect how the lumad view themselves. If they are cut out, then I would not be surprised if they build their own national liberation/secessionist bloc. It would be tragic, considering the lumad were there before Muslims and Christians came in.

How do you view the region's economic prospects following a devolution of powers?

In the short term, there will be block grants from the national government. Coupled with the creation of a new Bangsamoro bureaucracy, there may be some net gain in employment, although some national government institutions will be drawn down. But it might still be a net gain in jobs.

In the long run, however, it remains to be seen if the Bangsamoro will help create the conditions for the emergence of a middle class or a growth in SMEs. I fear that relying on block grants is unsustainable. Government expenditures propping up the Bangsamoro is inimical for the end-goal of autonomy.

But considering how the ARMM squandered its resources and became a showpiece for corruption, I am extremely skeptical in this regard. 

Joseph Franco is research fellow with the Center of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.

DW's Sandra Petersmann on the situation in Marawi

Srinivas Mazumdaru Editor and reporter focusing on business and Asia