Politics in the Sulu archipelago could be an unforeseen stumbling block for a negotiated peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines.
The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines how clan politics in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi off the coast of Mindanao could complicate the government’s efforts to sign a peace agreement with the largest Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Clan-based politicians of the archipelago, while Muslim, are worried that a settlement will give power to the ethnically distinct MILF. This exposes an important weakness in the government’s peace strategy, which aims to give something to everyone and risks satisfying no one.
“The government needs to find a way to give real autonomy to the MILF without alienating powerful island clan leaders who do not want to lose out from a settlement”, says Bryony Lau, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Analyst.
The Aquino government’s peace strategy brings three components together: reform of the dysfunctional government of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which includes the three island provinces plus Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in Central Mindanao; a review of the 1996 peace agreement with another Muslim insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF); and a peace agreement with the MILF.
The last component is what unsettles the governors of the archipelagic provinces. They and the clan-based networks that support them benefit from the status quo: a political system historically rooted in Manila’s patronage of Muslim elite. They fear that a peace agreement would overhaul governance in Muslim areas, disrupt their access to money and power, and boost the Central Mindanao-based MILF, whom they distrust, at the expense of the islands. Their scepticism towards the peace process undermines its objective: to grant the Muslims of the south, known as the Bangsamoro, true autonomy once and for all.
Without the backing of clan leaders of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, it will be impossible to implement a peace agreement. Neither the national government nor the MILF has the capacity to enforce the terms of a settlement in the islands, which are a haven for militants. The MILF could try to win the support of clan-based politicians by guaranteeing to include some of them in its proposed interim administration, which would be set up after an agreement is signed. But that is still a long way off. In the short term, the provincial governors and political elite in the islands are more preoccupied with securing their re-election in next year’s polls.
“The government’s strategy risks deepening the divisions among the Bangsamoro”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “But a peace agreement is unthinkable without support from the Sulu archipelago”.