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Muslim Separatists in the Southern Philippines

Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley (1998)

Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley (1998)

In 1996, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) reached an agreement with the government and the group laid down its arms. Could you explain what became of this agreement and why it is that the Philippine Congress never ratified it? Analysts have suggested that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established following the agreement is not working at all. Do you agree with this claim and if so, why do you think this has been the case?

The 1996 Peace Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the MNLF did not require ratification by the Philippine Congress. However, many Philippine legislators did not support the agreement and were able to take a number of steps to limit or eliminate funding for implementation and to pressure the administration to water down the provisions of the final agreement.. Opposition in congress to the peace agreement seems to have been led by Christian senators and representatives from Mindanao. The 1996 Agreement arranged for the implementation of the original Tripoli agreement in two phases. First, it created a transitional administrative structure known as the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). Nur Misuari, the founder and chairman of the MNLF, was made chairman of the SPCPD and won election as governor of the ARMM. The second phase of the 1996 Peace Agreement, which was originally scheduled to begin in September 1999, called for the establishment of a new Regional Autonomous Government.

Despite the initial promise of the 1996 Peace Agreement, it has stalled badly in its implementation and is in serious danger of unraveling altogether. The September 1999 deadline for initiating the second phase of the agreement has come and gone. The autonomy agreement is stuck in its initial transition phase and has made very little progress in achieving either peace or development in the Muslim South. While the reasons for the failure of the most recent attempt to achieve meaningful autonomy for Philippine Muslims are complex, two particular (and indirectly related) problems stand out. First, due in part to congressional opposition, the SPCPD was provided entirely inadequate levels of power and resources. Not only was the SPCPD deprived of any internal taxation authority, its overall authority was severely restricted.

The second particular problem is that the 1996 Peace Agreement has not brought peace to Muslim Mindanao. The Philippine government decided to negotiate only with the main Muslim separatist faction--the MNLF led by Nur Misuari, a signatory to the original Tripoli Agreement. The MILF had sufficient military might and civilian support to wage war against the government but was ignored. After some initial armed encounters with government troops shortly after the 1996 Agreement was signed, the MILF signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1997 and entered into peace talks. Negotiations proceeded slowly and were interrupted by occasional skirmishes. Since late 1999, however, fighting has intensified and in early 2000 the MILF withdrew from peace talks. At this moment, (June 2000) fighting between the MILF and government troops is more intense and widespread than at any time since the signing of the Tripoli Agreement and threatens to erupt into a resumption of war.

What international factors have contributed to the conflict between Muslim separatists and the Philippine State?

Muammar Kadaffi has been involved in various ways, some of them quite positive in terms of seeking a settlement. The original 1976 peace agreement was signed in Libya. Libya has also sheltered and supported MNLF fighters at various times. So have Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I think, however that the most substantive and positive contribution has come from the Organization of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (OIC for short), a very influential international body made up of foreign ministers of Muslim states. The OIC publicized the grievances of the separatists very early on. It pressured the Philippine government to negotiate with the MNLF and threatened a reduction of oil supplies to Manila. It arranged the first peace agreement and has been very active in facilitating negotiations and arranging agreements, including the most recent, ever since.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.