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CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – The upcoming 2023 barangay elections will serve as a test for the Bangsamoro region’s stability, according to the International Crisis Group, which expressed concern that violence could escalate even before its first regional elections in two years.
Powerful clans in the Bangsamoro pose a major stumbling block to achieving long-term peace in the Muslim-majority region, and tensions between them and the interim officials of the regional government may result in election-related violence, the group said in a report released on May 1.
The Brussels-based nonprofit organization is an independent entity dedicated to preventing deadly conflicts and shaping policies that foster peace in various countries. Since the 1990s, the group has been sounding the alarm on potential conflicts and offers research-based recommendations on good governance and inclusive politics.
In its report, the group said the political clans have a stronghold on the politics and economy in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and often have private armies involved in violence.
“A big obstacle to enduring peace in the Bangsamoro is clan politics: powerful families dominate the region politically and economically. They hold most of the region’s seats in the national congress and control many of its provinces and municipalities,” read part of the report.
Many of these clans are political dynasties that have ruled in the Mindanao provinces for generations. The Crisis Group’s report cited the power of these clans, particularly the unsuccessful efforts to dismantle the private armed groups that are often associated with them.
The report said tensions between political families and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – the group that now calls the shots in the regional government – have been blamed for previous incidents of violence.
“Almost ten years after the parties signed the peace deal, several issues are putting the transition it envisaged at risk. For one, violence is flaring up in the region. Some of these skirmishes, especially in central Mindanao, can be traced to conflicts over land and politics between and among MILF members and militias controlled by powerful clans,” the Crisis Group said in its report.
Bangsamoro Interior Minister Naguib Sinarimbo said the BARMM peace process was being “sabotaged” from within by some of the predominantly Muslim region’s traditional politicians to make it look like the regional government was being led by a divided MILF.
Sinarimbo said, “We have achieved new relations between the central government and the Bangsamoro. The struggle now is changing the status quo within Moro politics. The traditional politicians, the greedy ones, are threatened.”
He said some of the region’s old political groups have resorted to manipulation to “instigate violence [and] to portray to the national government and the international community that no significant gain in terms of peace and security has been achieved” after the MILF assumed leadership of the interim regional government.
“Some kumanders (MILF commanders) are too enterprising. Some are promised key positions if they succeed…. It is also a way of projecting that the MILF leadership is no longer in control of its forces,” Sinarimbo said.
A case in point was the emergence of the so-called MILF-Salamat wing in 2022, shortly before MILF leader Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim was reappointed as BARMM’s interim minister.
The “Salamat wing,” led by Abdulfatah Delna, an MILF commander who served in the security group of the late MILF founding chairman Salamat Hashim, has accused Ebrahim’s group of deviating from the ideals of their founder.
The group’s political affairs chief, former MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu, told Rappler in August that they wanted a full accounting of BARMM funds and lifestyle checks on those running the regional government.
But Sinarimbo said the “Salamat wing” was the handiwork of some of BARMM’s traditional politicians.
“Sabotage is, perhaps, more accurate. These politicians want a power grab,” Sinarimbo told Rappler.
He said the BARMM was still hoping that things would change for the better “but we are old enough to see they’re scheming.”
The May 1 report noted that clans continued to control the region’s various provincial governments, such as in Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and the Maguindanao provinces.
The Crisis Group also said political schisms between the Ebrahim-led MILF and some of the political clans continue to fuel violence in the region.
Despite relative peace in the BARMM during the first three years of the transitional period, tensions and conflicts have hindered the process, particularly in the two Maguindanao territories, and the neighboring special geographic area (SGA) in Cotabato province.
The SGA in Cotabato province was where the majority voted to be under the BARMM instead of administratively remaining under the Soccsksargen region.
The Crisis Group said the 2022 local and presidential elections showed the powerful families consolidating their influence in local governance in territories under the BARMM, leading to tensions with former MILF rebels.
Private armies often employed by political families are involved in violence in the region, which can be traced to tussles between them and former rebels, and the Crisis Group said the government needs to take action to dismantle these militias.
Friction between former rebels and various clans became more pronounced in the lead-up to the May 2022 elections in the Bangsamoro region.
The MILF, through its political arm, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), had fielded candidates to challenge traditional politicians in the provinces of Maguindanao and Basilan, and the regional capital, Cotabato City.
These were the first elections in which former rebels or MILF-backed politicians ran as candidates, with mixed outcomes, and with the UBJP winning only a few positions in most areas but securing the mayoral seat in Cotabato City.
The interim government in the Bangsamoro has been criticized for uneven development and the continued control of the economy by local elites and clans, who often undermine the interim government’s efforts, the Crisis Group said.
As a result, the security situation in the region remains uncertain, discouraging potential investors, according to the report.
The Crisis Group recommended identifying armed groups, particularly those involved in political rivalries, evaluating their firepower and connections to traditional politicians and rebel factions, and dismantling the strongest ones between 2023 and 2024.
The report said there was a need for the MILF and political clans, especially those with power in Maguindanao del Norte, Maguindanao del Sur, and Sulu, to engage in dialogue and reach compromises on local government codes, law and order, electoral districting, and other pressing concerns.
It recommended that Ebrahim form and mobilize a special body that would facilitate dialogues among officials at the regional, provincial, and town levels to resolve conflicts during this sensitive period in the peace process before tensions escalate.
But resolving the conflicts through mere dialogues, however, is going to be a tall order in the BARMM given the way local politicians view politics and how they ensure their continued stay in power, and pursue their ambitions to climb up the ladder and expand their family dynasties.
From a former Mindanao secessionist and revolutionary group, the MILF is now seen as a political group – and partisan at that – by some of the region’s well-entrenched political dynasties. They consider Ebrahim’s group as a threat to the existing power structure and status quo. (To be continued) – Rappler.com