Stars aligned? Prospects for peace in Mindanao

Zachary Abuza
The MILF is desperate to conclude an agreement. They are a shadow of their former selves and command less popular support and military capabilities than anytime in the last 15 years.

The latest round (the 29th – groan) of peace talks between the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have just concluded in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Despite the dashed hopes of the protracted peace talks that have been going on since 2003, there is some hope that a final agreement will be reached this year, over four years after the collapsed MOA-AD agreement and the Supreme Court’s invalidation.

While an agreement was not reached, the two sides agreed to resume talks in August. There are strong motivating factors for both the MILF and the GRP to reach a deal by the year’s end.

The MILF is desperate to conclude an agreement for five reasons. The first and most pressing, is that they are a shadow of their former selves. They command less popular support and military capabilities than anytime in the last 15 years. Should talks fail, the MILF is unable to revert to war over a sustained period.

By definition, militant groups fight, and if they are not fighting, they are not training, maintaining their underground supply lines and acquisition networks. More importantly, they lose their command and control and their ideological raison d’etre.

The protracted peace process has diminished their battlefield efficacy. If you don’t believe me, look at 2007-08, when they had every reason to resume their armed struggle: there were low-level sporadic attacks but nothing that could be sustained.

The MILF will never get stronger, and at the same time the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are slowly improving their capabilities. Were all-out war to break out again, the MILF would lose – even more than they lost in 2000 and 2003. The MILF’s greatest asset at the negotiating table was the threat of returning to war. That threat rings hollow today: they lack the necessary capabilities, unity and command and control.

Nor would the population necessarily support them if war were to break out. After decades of conflict the population in Muslim Mindanao is exhausted. Although there has not been a formal peace, there has been a substantial “peace dividend” since 2003. There is no stomach for a return to war, and the MILF knows it.

The change in the battlefield is reflected in the negotiations: in each iteration of the talks the government has had to offer the MILF less. What was on the table in 2004 and 2005, an eventual referendum, isn’t even broached today. The size and scope of the MILF’s ancestral domain shrinks, as does their demand for control over natural resources. The Bangsamoro Juridical Entity withered to a “substate” to the point that even Murad now uses the once poisonous term “autonomy.” If they don’t conclude a deal soon, they will be offered even less in the future. With a growing economy, and more resources, time is on the government’s side, not the MILF’s.

Third, MILF Chairman Ebrahim el Haj Murad has staked his entire reputation and leadership on delivering peace. He has already been challenged by hardliners in the movement, such as Ameril Umbra Kato. Each setback weakens him, and leaders do care about their legacies. More importantly, the MILF bench is not that deep, and it is hard to see a next generation leader that could hold the group together and negotiate peace.

Fourth, the MILF is desperate to get their hands on the mineral resources that are coming out of the ground and more importantly from under the sea bed. In particular the MILF have their eyes set on several offshore service contracts in the Sulu Sea, near the Malaysian state of Sabah, which all have tested and proven reserves and where drilling will soon commence. And unlike the Catholic Church or the New People’s Army which have been vociferous in their criticism of mining, the MILF seems eager as long as an equitable wealth sharing agreement is reached. Though they have asserted that the “I” in their name stands for “Islamic,” there is more evidence today that it stands for “Ingot.”

Finally, the international community’s interest in supporting a peace process is waning, support that the MILF needs as a guarantor. From 2004-2007, the United States, Japan, the European Union and a host of multilateral donors were actively engaged and ready to pour significant funds into the region. The protracted talks and pessimism following the failure of the MOA-AD have led to donor fatigue.

More to the point, there is just less money in 2012 than there was in 2007. It is hard to imagine any donor being able and willing to match what they put on the table five years ago. We are one more major European bailout away from a global economic shockwave.

Government’s calculus

The GRP, too, has every reason to cut a deal now.

For the first year-and-a-half of his term, President Aquino did little on the peace front. Though he held a publicized meeting with Murad in Tokyo, in August 2010, everything that did transpire was through back-channel talks. But he is well into his six-year term and if he doesn’t get the ball rolling soon, lame-duck status will set in and make a deal harder to reach.

But with former President Gloria Arroyo under arrest, with new charges mounting on a regular basis, the successful impeachment of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and a stabilized and growing economy, the President may feel that the time is finally right. He has political capital to spend. And the MILF has conceded that an agreement will take place within the current constitutional framework.

Aquino, too, needs to secure his legacy. In part, that has been done by at least appearing to take on the endemic corruption that plagues the Philippines. But a peace deal is also part of his sense of social justice that he inherited from his mother. He needs to conclude the failed presidency of Corazon Aquino that had dashed so many hopes.

But it is more than legacy. With China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, including the April standoff in Scarborough Shoal, this month’s running aground of a Chinese naval vessel on Hasa Hasa reef, and China’s effective lobbying of Cambodia at the ASEAN summit, there is every reason to dedicate the country’s limited resources on external threats.

AFP’s support

Moreover, there is a not unimportant bloc within the AFP that wants to settle the ongoing insurgencies and focus on developing a minimal capability to defend the territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines. This is no small order, given the 50-plus year legacy of the Philippines to not invest in its military.

President Aquino has increased funding for the AFP and given them additional resources including US$183 million for the purchase of two off-shore patrol craft, radar and long-range maritime surveillance aircraft as well as an upgrade of the facilities on Thitu Island, yet, this hardly amounts to a credible deterrent.

To this end, the GRP will get some assistance from the United States. But the US wants resolution in the peace process with the MILF. As long as they don’t have a peace agreement and assume the responsibilities of governance, the MILF has no incentive to close their territories to terrorists from abroad.

Finally, the government is confronted with a double-edged sword: a weaker MILF has meant fewer concessions, but the flip side is that a weaker MILF might not be able to implement an agreement. Already we are seeing a surge in intra-MILF clan wars and rido conflicts. Their command, control and discipline are ebbing quickly. And they still have little clout in the MNLF heartland of Sulu. Yet, for all its faults and weaknesses, the MILF is the best chance for sustained peace in Mindanao.

One should never be too optimistic when it comes to peace in Mindanao. There are simply too many vested interests in the status quo. Never forget the dictum bellum se ipsum allet – war feeds itself.

Too many people have benefited from the conflict for too long. But for the first time, the stars seem to be aligning. But both sides have incentives to conclude an agreement now. Whether such rationality will prevail is an altogether different issue. Whether each side can effectively mobilize their constituents and neutralize the spoilers, is another. –

(The author is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College in Boston where he teaches Southeast Asian politics and security issues. From 2010-2012 he was Professor of National Security at the National War College in Washington, DC. He blogs at and