The Philippine government is experimenting with a creative but risky new strategy to resolve the conflict in Mindanao.
The Philippines: A New Strategy for Peace in Mindanao?, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, details the emerging strategy of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino’s administration for bringing peace to the southern Philippines. The government has three goals: to implement a two-year reform program to prove that good governance is possible in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM); to combine separate talks with two insurgencies, the factionalised Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the larger, better-armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); and to lay the groundwork for a future Moro sub-state.
“Even if the government can manoeuvre all these elements into place, there is no guarantee that Aquino’s advisers have found the formula for peace that eluded previous administrations”, says Bryony Lau, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Analyst. “But a strategy without risk is certain to fail”.
The government has made the most progress on the first prong of its strategy: reforming the dysfunctional autonomous region. With the support of some Muslim civil society organisations, Congress postponed the 2011 ARMM elections until 2013. Presidential appointees will implement reforms over the next two years to prove that autonomy need not be synonymous with corruption, poverty and private armies. The government has agreed to appoint some members of the MNLF, who are unhappy their own 1996 peace agreement was never implemented, to this interim administration to entice them to cooperate.
There has been the least progress to date in talks with the MILF. More than a year after Aquino took office, the government has yet to reveal its hand on the core issues of the negotiations: the territory and powers of a future sub-state. Delays as officials try to juggle the other components of this strategy for peace may deepen MILF suspicions about the government’s motives. At the next round of talks in mid-August, it can allay these concerns by presenting its counter-proposal to the MILF draft submitted in February.
“The MILF prides itself on consistency, but consistency does not need to mean inflexibility,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “In the same way the Philippine government under Aquino is testing out a new approach, the MILF should keep an open mind about how a final settlement could be achieved as the talks move forward”.