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Limits of power-sharing in the Philippines

Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s government announced on Sunday that it had reached a tentative power-sharing deal with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) over contested territories on the southern island of Mindanao. Whether the agreement ends the four-decade long conflict that has taken more than 100,000 lives, however, is still highly uncertain.

The move effectively abolishes the previous Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) created in 1989 and provides the MILF with 58 exclusive powers, including autonomous allowances to form an Islamic parliament, establish a banking system and wield power over ancestral domain and certain natural resources within its jurisdiction. The two sides still have not agreed over who should control the region’s water resources.

A democratically elected local government, expected to be led by the MILF, will establish a virtual Islamic sub-state known as Bangsamoro in the predominantly Christian nation. The power-sharing agreement is predicated on MILF rebels recognizing Manila’s authority over security, foreign and citizenship policies, joining the democratic process, and, most crucially, putting down their arms.

The announcement, made in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, overcomes a key stumbling block to previous negotiations and is viewed as a prelude to the enactment of a wider comprehensive peace pact some time in early 2014. The agreement will serve as the basis for Bangsamoro Basic Law, which both sides will submit to Congress for approval before they can establish the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region.

There are, however, several potential spoilers to the deal. In 2009, a similar attempt by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government to enact a Memorandum of Agreement on the Muslim Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) to create a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) was challenged by Mindanao local leaders and struck down as “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court. The judicial intervention sparked a new round of hostilities between the MILF and government forces that displaced thousands of civilians.

Similar complaints have surfaced against Aquino’s 2012 Framework Peace Agreement. Political analyst Ninez Olivarez, for one, said Aquino has committed a “sin” against the Filipino people for relinquishing sovereignty over resource-rich areas of Mindanao to the MILF. Others believe the pact’s many vaguely worded provisions could again be ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

A more volatile challenge could arise from armed groups not included in the peace deal. The rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) underscored that risk through its armed siege of Zamboanga City in September that led to several deaths and the displacement of more than 100,000 people before being suppressed by the military. MNLF representatives were quoted at the time saying their incursion aimed to pre-empt alleged military plans to arrest the group’s leaders.

The rebel siege was launched in broad response to the MNLF being sidelined in the government’s dealings with the MILF. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1977 in response to MNLF leaders accepting a government offer of semi-autonomy over disputed regions. Other armed groups now active in Mindanao, including the Communist New People’s Army, the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf and the MILF breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, are all potential spoilers to the MILF peace deal.

The MILF’s willingness to put down their arms while other rebel groups continue fighting in contiguous areas will be a complicating factor to a final deal. Government negotiators have said that the next round of negotiations will be perhaps the most difficult as it will entail agreeing to a mechanism for the MILF’S estimated 12,000 combatants to hand over their weapons and return to mainstream society in a still violent neighborhood.

Outside players, including the United States, are expected to lend their strong diplomatic support to a final peace deal. In 2008, the US embassy in Manila sent its former Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney to Malaysia to witness the ceremonial signing of the MOA-AD agreement that was later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. At one juncture, the envoy attempted to meet secretly with MILF leaders but her undisclosed mission was revealed in the local press.

US support for the MILF peace process has raised nationalistic rumblings about possible ulterior motives. One national broadsheet recently ran an editorial that argued the US is interested in peace in Mindanao to pave the way for establishing its own military presence in the region, as part of its “pivot” policy to counterbalance China. The editorial said: “Without a military presence in Mindanao, the US will also lose its access to big oil reserves in the South China Sea.”

Mindanao is believed to possess some of the world’s richest stores of untapped mineral resources. A 2006 US intelligence assessment released by Wikileaks estimated Mindanao “may have untapped minerals worth between US$840 to $1 trillion.” Filipino legislator Jerry Trenas said that the US assessment “basically assures that peace in Mindanao could catapult the entire nation from being a third world nation into a major economic power in Asia”.

Mindanaoans for Mindanao convener Rolly Pellingon believes that politically and economically influential people in Manila have rushed the new power sharing arrangement so they can start exploiting the region’s resources. The Framework Agreement’s Point 7 acknowledges the new political entity’s power to create its own revenues, but also stipulates undefined limitations to that power and revenue-sharing requirements with Manila.

While there are clear economic incentives for a power-sharing peace deal, the region’s fractious politics are still unresolved. MNLF leaders have recently accused the government of lobbying certain of its members to support the MILF peace deal, prompting MNLF Islamic Command Council leader Habib Hashim to accuse Aquino’s administration of engaging in “divide and rule” tactics. MNLF leaders also bitterly maintain that Manila never fully implemented the terms of its prior peace pact, which by some readings will be nullified with the ARMM’s abolition.

It is not clear to many observers that brokering a deal with the MILF while leaving other rebel groups in the cold will bring lasting or meaningful peace to Mindanao. As Aquino’s government pushes ahead with a power-sharing deal armed groups and political constituencies believe is not inclusive of their interests, new spasms of violence similar to this year’s siege of Zamboanga City could be on the horizon.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.