Can this at least be the end of war?

Cesar Suva
The political currency that extremists might possess could be undermined through greater legitimacy of the political establishment

Last week the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed. It is one of the final pieces in the most recent peace process that began in October 2012 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Government of the Philippines. 

In this new agreement, the government of a new Bangsamoro political entity will take the form of a ministerial legislature with elected officials representing various groups within the Bangsamoro.

Of significance is the articulation, in the Annex on Power Sharing, that “The Central Government and the Bangsamoro Government shall be guided by the principle of parity of esteem…”

With this expression of equality in the eyes of the central government, and the seeming achievement of true autonomy, will this be the end of Moro separatism? Probably not.

But if talk of things like self-determination and greater political rights can be done without warfare, death and displacement, through a constitutional process, that will undoubtedly be enough to deem this most recent process a success.

A parallel that comes to mind is that of Quebec, in Canada. The first organized political group to push for sovereignty in Quebec – the Rassemblement pour l’independence nationale, or in English, the assembly for national independence (RIN) was founded in 1960 – a full nine years before Nur Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front.  

But for a brief period in the early 1970s where the radical Front de la Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) carried out terrorist acts such as bombings and a high profile murder of Pierre Laporte, the Vice-Premier of Quebec, the existence of the Parti-Quebecois, the constitutional heir to the RIN, offered a legitimate, peaceful political option to those French Canadians who, as many Muslim Filipinos do, felt marginalized and discriminated.

The Parti-Quebecois’ legitimate place in the political system in Canada provided a peaceful channel through which to voice frustration and even anger at the government in Ottawa. It helped make violence illegitimate and unsavory to the majority of the French Canadian population. 

While the nationalist discourse about Quebec separating from Canada has persisted, it has never returned to the violence and terrorism of the 1960s. 

There are many groups in Mindanao and Sulu that are just committed to violence, who can’t fathom any other approach to seeking satisfaction for their grievances or expressing their views.

The new Bangsamoro government has to take the discourse away from those who are too quick to take up arms to scuttle the peace.

Majority in the middle

The mistake in conflict can often be that attention and effort is focused on the extremists, and no support or opportunity is provided for the majority in the middle – the moderates. This is often why conflict can polarize societies as aggrieved individuals and groups who might not have turned to violence resort to it because of the absence of avenues they believe can resolve their issues.

Too often the response to force are equal if not greater displays of force – feeding into an endless cycle of violence. As is often said, the only way to stop a cycle is to break out of it. This can be done by building up and nurturing the moderates, isolating the ones too quick to turn to arms so that the ranks of these groups dwindle, as more members seek peaceful avenues toward achieving justice.

The new Bangsamoro “entity” – as well as the Philippine state, need to give maximum opportunity and voice to those individuals in the middle of the political spectrum on the fate of Muslim Filipinos and the rest of the southern Philippines.

Will this new agreement finally bring peace? Many people certainly have reason to be sceptical. The 1976 Tripoli agreement was supposed to bring peace, and so was the 1996 agreement between the MNLF and the Ramos administration.

What was at issue in the breakdown of each agreement was the question of who genuinely had a stake in the new system.  

In the Tripoli agreement, the MNLF’s stake was unilaterally overridden by Ferdinand Marcos’ autocratic approach, and only nominal, ‘fake’ autonomy was given.

In 1996, the MNLF was finally given a stake in the new entity, but members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or the MILF, felt left out and they in turn took the mantle of rebels in the South.

In this present agreement, the MILF is the main participant in the talks, and many wonder if once again some groups will feel left out.

An indication of the possible reaction emerged in 2013 when alleged members of an MNLF-linked group raided Zamboanga City. There is also the emergence of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, or the BIFF, as well as the continued existence of the Abu Sayyaf.

But perhaps the political currency that these groups might possess could be undermined through greater legitimacy of the political establishment.

However more radical these groups might be, they are the more extreme manifestations of a general feeling that the Philippine state, for Muslim Filipinos, has long been illegitimate at worst, and distant at best. 

For decades, Philippine Muslim society has had to turn inward, to prominent local individuals and informal, traditional mediatory practices, for what they felt was more legitimate justice that the Philippine system could not offer them. 

Local involvement

The greatest successes in the settlement of local disputes have involved the participation of locally revered individuals who were known to and respected by all sides in the disputes, as conflict management NGOs such as the Asia Foundation have come to realize.

The alien-ness of Manila is a reflection of the failure up to this point of the nation state to win legitimacy in the eyes of Muslim Filipinos.

The rebellions of recent decades, in addition to being expressions of nationalism, are also manifestations of this perception of illegitimacy, as unfulfilled political rights or frustrated grievances have led Muslim Filipinos to taking the ultimate option of violence to seize justice in the absence of more peaceful means.

The opportunity now is to have elected representatives in an assembly for a people, some of whom, prior to this, have felt they could find no justice and representation without turning ultimately to the force of arms. A new government that, while being an integral part of the Philippine system, can also be legitimate enough for most Muslim Filipinos. If only all groups could feel represented.  And that perhaps is the trickiest part.

To be sure, there will always be the radicals who will not be satisfied until they achieve the panacea of “full” independence.

And there will also be persistent local disputes, such as rido that turns violent and spreads outward as they engulf entire communities.

But the majority of the ordinary people of Mindanao just want to live in peace in a society where they can feel there is a reachable, legitimate entity through whom their perspectives and political desires can be expressed.

While one might ask: “Doesn’t giving power and government to a distinct group perpetuate and legitimize separatist tensions? Won’t the Philippines be doomed to persistent pressure of fragmentation?”

Perhaps. In many countries that have granted a high degree of autonomy to minorities, this has certainly become the case. The cyclical rhetoric on Quebec’s separation from English Canada is an example of this.  And this has been going on for generations.  

An important thing to remember though, is in the Canadian case, despite decades of often acrimonious debate, kidnappings and even murder, over a period longer than that experienced by the Philippines with modern Moro groups, there has never been an all-out war.  

There is nothing wrong with the political expression of local identity. In fact local identity and distinctness can enrich the cultural and social fabric of a nation. If only its expression can be channelled away from violence.

And if the battlefields of Mindanao and Sulu can be riddled with just the rhetoric of Bangsamoro nationalism, rather than the whistle of bullets, then that arguably, is progress enough. – Rappler.com

Cesar Suva is a teaching fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.