With today’s formal resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), I found myself wondering what if the parties finally come to a permanent settlement in the conflict-ridden region in the south of Mindanao. Into its fourteenth year, these talks seem to have been going on for forever and a day. But what if a final deal is forged; what would the future hold for the region?
Like most Filipinos, I have a very sketchy picture in my head of the goings-on down south. Except when news of war and terror attacks hug the headlines, I rarely think about the peace process, I must admit. As an economist, I am aware that the people living in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) rank the lowest in our country when it comes to per capita incomes and other meaningful indicators such as literacy and child mortality. This is despite the Philippines and foreign donors pouring in massive amounts of aid to support development in the region.
So I decided to do a little research as a backgrounder to this piece. Here are a few pieces of trivia that I found interesting which the average man on the street would probably not be aware of:
- the ARMM covers a mere 12,288 square kilometers.
- there are only five provinces covered: Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi
- the total number of inhabitants was 4.12M in 2000
- although the ARMM capital is in Cotabato, the city did not opt to join the ARMM
- Isabela City, which is in Basilan also did not join the ARMM
- the government consists of an executive council comprised of the governor, vice-governor, 3 deputy governors (representing the main ethnic groups consisting of Muslims, indigenous or Lumads and Christians) and not more than 10 cabinet members
- the regional legislative assembly consists of 24 members, 3 delegates are elected per district
- all elective officials are elected to serve a term of three years
- the powers of the legislative assembly are limited and do not cover foreign affairs and immigration, among others, but it can legislate on matters concerning Shari’ah , the law governing Muslims
- since its inaugural in 1990, the ARMM governors have come from only one party, Lakas-NUCD
- there have been six governors since 1990; Nuralaj Misuari, the former head of the Moro National Liberation Front was the longest serving ARMM governor serving from 1996 until 2001 when he was removed from office by Pres Gloria Arroyo and later charged for rebellion
- Zaldy Ampatuan from the infamous Ampatuan clan was the ARMM governor from 2005-2009 until he was replaced following the Maguindanao massacre.
- A general cessation of hostilities between the government in Manila and the MILF was signed in July 1997 only to be abolished in 2000 by President Estrada which led to the MILF declaring a jihad (holy war) against the government, its citizens and supporters. A cease-fire was restored by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government which re-started peace talks
- the last time hostilities broke out was after the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 against the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace in 2001 (MOA-AD) which sought to expand the ARMM both in geographic scope and in powers (to include control over a police force and natural resources) and create a juridical entity called the Bangsa Juridical Entity (BJE). The MOA-AD would have paved the way for the signing of a Final Comprehensive Compact.
Even this mere recitation of facts brings to light a few important issues regarding the future of the ARMM or whatever entity succeeds it as part of any final peace accord. The first of these is inspired by recent events in the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Until recently, the ARMM government has been controlled by local warlords, puppets or vassals aligned with the powers that be in Imperial Manila. They and their local paramilitary armies have served as a counter-weight to the MILF. We have seen the effects of maintaining this policy after two decades: corruption, poor human development, poverty and human rights abuses.
The ARMM leaders so far have all been aligned with the ruling party and not positioned themselves with Islamist or religious ideology for obvious reasons. What should happen once political markets in the region open up and other groups with links to terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaida are allowed to join the political fray?
The ARMM leaders so far have all been aligned with the ruling party and not positioned themselves with Islamist or religious ideology for obvious reasons. What should happen once political markets in the region open up and other groups with links to terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaida are allowed to join the political fray? Will we see for instance the election of a radical group such as Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon? Democratic self-governance might be a transitory state leading into a new dictatorship under an Islamist regime. That is the first concern.
The second concern flows from the first one. What would happen to the prospects of economic development once this new entity comes into being? In a blog-piece that I wrote previously comparing the regions of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and SSA (Sub-Saharan Africa), I observed that MENA has been doing a far better job at creating prosperity compared to SSA. MENA is ruled by and large by paternalistic authoritarian regimes which have used the money from oil revenues to improve living standards without granting political rights to its citizens. What would be the model for development under the new system?
The third and final concern has to do with women empowerment and the rights of minorities. Should the new order result in a regional identity tilted more towards Islamic law and customs, what will happen to the rights of women and minorities under this system. There are of course prototypes in ASEAN for what could happen. Malaysia has adopted a kind of affirmative action policy that favors the rights of the native Malays or Bumiputra who are traditionally muslim. Would the new order adopt the same? What will happen to women’s access to education?
Many of us assume that once the final peace accord is signed, it will solve the security as well as the social and economic problems in the south. I hope I am wrong but it might not necessarily be the case. There could be other complications. Just as Washington looks to MENA and ponders what the new order will bring, so should we look to our own backyard and worry about its future, both for its own sake and ours.