By Mark Navales and Richel V. Umel
The European Union on Friday welcomed the Philippine president’s signing of a law giving Muslims in the south expanded autonomy, but some observers said it would not automatically bring about peace in the sprawling region where militancy remains a problem.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which President Rodrigo Duterte signed a day earlier, represents a unique opportunity for people of the predominantly Muslim Mindanao region to “embrace peace and stability after decades of strife,” the European bloc said in a statement.
“It underlines both parties’ commitment to peace and their ability to tackle a variety of complex matters through a comprehensive and inclusive law,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the European Union (EU) on its foreign affairs and security policy.
The EU has long backed peace talks between the Philippines and the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and is part of an International Monitoring Team established 14 years ago to ensure that ceasefires and other negotiated agreements are implemented. Malaysia heads the monitoring team, whose members also include Indonesia and Brunei.
Kocijancic said all those involved in crafting the law worked hard to ensure that it brings “stability and well-being” to Mindanao, a mineral-rich but deeply impoverished region.
“The EU remains a staunch supporter of the peace process and is prepared to support the implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in the future,” Kocijiancic said.
Duterte: ‘Fighting is no longer an option’
Official copies of the new law have not been made available to journalists in Manila.
But it is understood that the BOL will give an estimated four million Muslim Filipinos in the south an area they can govern through an elected parliament. It will also give southern Muslims control over many aspects of their lives, ranging from having Islamic courts to controlling their own taxes and school system.
The law also aims to widen a Muslim autonomous area in the south that was offered to the MILF’s precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in 1996.
On Thursday, Duterte told a crowd in the southern city of Ipil that he had signed the BOL, but he did not offer specifics. He said, however, that he was expected to meet with MILF chief Murad Ebrahim and his political affairs chief, Ghazali Jaafar, for a ceremony related to the law’s signing.
The president said he would also seek a meeting with MNLF founding leader Nur Misuari about creating a separate autonomous rule for him. Duterte did not explain what he meant by this, and many were left wondering about what he actually intended to do.
Misuari became governor of the autonomous region after the 1996 deal was struck between the government and his MNLF, but the region remained mired in poverty and corruption.
To derail the government-MILF peace process, forces aligned with Misuari attacked the southern city of Zamboanga in 2013, burning about 10,000 homes and leaving about 200 people dead. Misuari escaped and has been fugitive until the courts cleared him on Duterte’s order shortly after he won the presidency in 2016.
“I’m trying to talk to everybody. I talked to the enemies of the state. I’m talking to Nur. Nur, if you are my brother Nur, if you are listening, I would like to thank you for just reining in your forces,” Duterte said Thursday. “Let us talk because we are old. Fighting is no longer an option for you and me.”
It also is unclear what Misuari’s role will be in the deal which calls for the MILF to gradually disarm its military forces, estimated to number about 11,000.
The new law calls for expanding the autonomous region, which would be governed by its own parliament. A “transitional authority” of former MILF rebels would lead the body in the interim.
Former MILF camps would be transformed into civilian communities where the national government would retain police and military powers.
In Sabah, a nearby state in neighboring Malaysian Borneo, a resident of Filipino descent who identified himself as “Munir M,” hailed the law’s signing. But, he cautioned, it could bring challenges too.
“This is a great success for the Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao, where I still have lots of relatives,” he told BenarNews.
“But now a challenge has begun for the Bangsamoro. Power is a very hard test and, in fact, in Islam, power is the hardest test for Muslims.”
‘Master’ of deception
Drieza Abato Lininding, founder of the recently formed Moro Consensus Group, cautioned against totally embracing the BOL under the Duterte regime.
“More than ever, we feel worse under his administration,” said Lininding, who lost his home in southern Marawi city during a five-month battle last year between pro-Islamic State militants and government forces.
“We thought that under his presidency we would finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, but he has proven himself anti-Moro.”
Since Duterte became president, “there’s conflict everywhere” in Muslim areas in the south, he said. Lininding noted that fighting had spread between remnants of the militants who staged the Marawi attack to Maguindanao province.
“He is the master, if not the king, of deception,” said Lininding, who rallied Muslim support for Duterte in the 2016 polls. “He tricked us during the election campaign, and made Moro lands as his sacrificial lambs for his selfish political ambitions.”
Ayesah Uy Abubakar, a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), praised the signing of the new law.
“It is an unprecedented achievement in itself because of the long years of consistent hard work and very active participation of not only the two actors but civil society groups, politicians and international groups that supported the peace process,” she told BenarNews.
Political analyst Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said that while he welcomed the BOL, it was not a guarantee that other Muslim factions would lay down their weapons.
Security forces, he said, would still have to contend with other militant groups, including those who had fled Marawi. MILF fighters would also be hesitant to surrender their arms knowing that there are other fighters that could grab their territories.
“The BOL is another political experiment for the Bangsamoro people to enjoy their right to self-determination,” he said. “I just hope that this political experiment will work. If not, let us try another political experiment in the future.”
Banlaoi argued that the BOL could be used by foreign militants to lure other fighters in Southeast Asia to establish themselves in Mindanao.
“With its opposition to the BOL, the BIFF, specifically the Turaipe Group, will intensify its military activities to entice new recruits and to attract foreign funding,” he said.
He was referring to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the MILF who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and to BIFF commander Abu Turaipe, one of its most senior members.
“Those opposed to the BOL will find ways to cooperate or coordinate in order to multiply their fighting forces,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo, in Cotabato City and Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, and Zam Yusa, in Kuala Lumpur, contributed to this report.