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The Origins of the Muslim Separatist Movement in the Philippines

This is a Christmas structure in Naawan, a lively town in Misamis Oriental in the Philippines. it depicts a mosque (crescent) and a church (cross), with two hands reaching out to each other and holding the whole world. (Mercado/Flickr)

This is a Christmas structure in Naawan, a lively town in Misamis Oriental in the Philippines. it depicts a mosque (crescent) and a church (cross), with two hands reaching out to each other and holding the whole world. (Mercado/Flickr)

The 1996 Peace Agreement

The 1992 national election brought a new president to power. As a former military man, President Fidel Ramos was well aware of the potential costs of a continued state of war with the MNLF, which was still receiving substantial diplomatic support from the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers. He also had much firmer control over the Philippine military than did his predecessor and thus was better able to offer incentives to the MNLF even against the wishes of some military officers. Ramos convinced the MNLF to reopen peace talks by offering to move closer to the Tripoli agreement through exploring means to enlarge both the boundaries and the authority of the autonomous region (Ramos 1996).

Peace negotiations were held between 1993 and 1996 and resulted in a comprehensive peace agreement that managed both to hew closely to the Tripoli Agreement signed 20 years earlier and to stay within the formal bounds of the 1987 Constitution and the congressional bill establishing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The 1996 agreement arranged for the implementation of the Tripoli agreement in two phases. First, it created a transitional administrative structure known as the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). This body substituted for the provisional government that was called for in the Tripoli agreement but was not allowed under the 1987 Constitution (Ferrer 1997). The role of the SPCPD was to supervise the implementation of the agreement during a three-year trial period. Most significantly, the SPCPD covered all 14 provinces and nine cities envisioned in the Tripoli agreement. Nur Misuari, the founder and chairman of the MNLF, was made chairman of the SPCPD and won election as governor of the ARMM. The agreement also provided for thousands of MNLF fighters to be integrated into the Philippine armed forces and national police. The "development" component of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development was viewed as key to the agreement. During the three-year trial period, the SPCPD was to demonstrate both to Muslims supporters and suspicious Christian residents the economic benefits of peace under an autonomous region by channeling national and international development funds into the region as well as by attracting foreign investment.

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 with its own executive council, a legislative assembly, and representation in the national government. It would also have tax raising powers, a regional security force, an educational system that would incorporate the madaris (Islamic schools), and a system of Shariah (Islamic) courts (Muslim 1999). The boundaries of this new Regional Autonomous Government were to be determined by a plebiscite. However, the agreement allowed for the redrawing of provincial boundaries "to cluster predominately Muslim municipalities", thus making it likely that the new Regional Autonomous Government would be significantly larger than the current ARMM and would include most Muslim communities in Mindanao (Gutierrez 1999).

Despite the initial promise of the 1996 Peace Agreement, it too has stalled badly in its implementation and is in imminent 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, as with the previous failed attempts at crafting an autonomous government for Muslim Mindanao, this latest version was also 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. It could neither initiate development planning in the region nor direct national government agencies to address the development priorities it had established. It could only make recommendations to the Philippines president (Gutierrez 1999). Furthermore, the extremely weak financial support provided by the national government has meant that the budget of the SPCPD, like that of its predecessors, has been mostly expended on salaries and operating costs for its officials and personnel, with very little left for development purposes. Specifically, there has been only the most minimal progress made in poverty alleviation, employment and the provision of basic services to poor Muslim communities. As one writer has remarked, "SPCPD is functioning much like the ARMM and the defunct Regional Commissions [under Marcos]: as a mechanism for co-option and conflict regulation, not conflict resolution" (Muslim 1999).

The second particular problem is that the 1996 Peace Agreement has not brought peace to Muslim Mindanao. As with the 1989 negotiations, 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. In the years since the 1996 agreement, two other armed separatist factions--the Muslim Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf (Sword of the Father)--have clashed militarily with the Philippine army and those clashes have recently escalated tremendously. Although the Philippine government tends to promote the view that these two factions are interchangeable, they are in fact quite distinct geographically and politically. The Abu Sayyaf faction is of relatively recent origin, appearing only in 1993, and is centered on the island of Basilan. They are a small, loosely organized, and rather mysterious group that has had limited popular support (although recent events may have increased that support somewhat). . The MILF dates from 1984 as a separate organization but can trace its roots to the beginnings of modern Muslim separatism (McKenna 1998). It is centered on the large island of Mindanao, is well-organized and has thousands of fighters and broad popular support in rural villages. While the Abu Sayyaf faction has garnered more headlines with its killings and kidnappings, the MILF (which has condemned the activities of the Abu Sayyaf) is the only rebel group with sufficient military might and civilian support to wage a protracted war once again against the government. After some initial armed encounters with government troops shortly after the 1996 agreement was signed, the MILF signed a cease-fire agreement with the government in 1997 and entered into peace talks. Negotiations proceeded slowly and were punctuated by occasional skirmishes. Since late 1999, however, fighting has intensified and in early 2000 the MILF withdrew from peace talks. At this writing (September 2000), fighting between the MILF and government troops is more intense and widespread than at any time since the signing of the Tripoli Agreement.

Two factors seem to be at work in the escalating failure of the 1996 Peace Agreement to bring about peace in the Muslim Philippines. For one, the largest Muslim population concentrations in the Philippines are in Central Mindanao, the stronghold of the MILF. The political strength gained by the MNLF in Central Mindanao since the late 1980s seems to be dissipating somewhat with the failure of the 1996 agreement to produce any tangible economic benefits for the large majority of Muslims there. Growing disillusionment with the peace agreement made by the MNLF has led to increased support for the MILF, especially among young men of fighting age. At least as significant, however, is the increasingly antagonistic stance of the current Philippine president, Joseph Estrada, toward Muslim separatists. Since taking office in 1998, Estrada has been lukewarm at best toward the 1996 Peace Agreement, and his lack of consistent support for its implementation has certainly contributed to the failure of the SPCPD. He has also taken an unusually intransigent stance in negotiations by demanding that the MILF "lay down its arms", threatening massive retaliation, and imposing absolute deadlines for the conclusion of peace talks. This tough talk from the Estrada administration prompts the impression that it has not yet learned the lesson so well understood by the three previous administrations; there is no genuine military solution to the Philippines' "Moro problem." Almost 25 years have passed since the signing of the original peace agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine Government, an agreement that provided for Muslim autonomy. Yet, despite its enshrinement in the Philippine constitution and the guarantees of consecutive national governments, genuine Muslim autonomy has yet to be realized and, consequently, a stable peace in Muslim Mindanao has yet to be obtained.