By Jeoffrey Maitem, Mark Navales and Richel V. Umel
A failure to ratify a Muslim autonomy law in the southern Philippines early next year could ignite fresh violence in the troubled region, with Islamic State-linked militants potentially exploiting the situation to boost their waning ranks, analysts warn.
On Jan. 21 some two million voters are expected to vote on ratifying the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). President Rodrigo Duterte signed off on it in July, four years after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) ended a separatist rebellion, which began two decades earlier and left tens of thousands of people dead and parts of the south in deep poverty.
If the law fails to bring development – as promised by MILF leaders-turned-politicians – it could drive many southerners back into the arms of militant groups, said Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department at Ateneo De Davao University in Davao City.
“There are challenges ahead like how it will be implemented. There is opposition from other sectors. And if it they are not addressed, that situation will lead to another armed group,” he told BenarNews.
The law gives people in the south control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and will allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system.
The upcoming plebiscite is expected take place in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. It will also include six towns in Lanao del Norte and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan.
However, with a few weeks left before the vote, large segments of the Muslim population have not been educated about the concept of autonomy and the implications of BOL, according to Beleno.
“Many people do not understand it. There must be massive explanation on the ground about the consequences if they accept it or not. There were many promises under the new set-up, but if they are not met, we will have a problem,” he said.
Under the set-up MILF would gradually disarm, with its members integrating into the Philippine armed forces.
But the absence of the former fighters from the frontlines could lead to a power vacuum, which more hardline groups inspired by Islamic State (IS) militants could fill, MILF chief Murad Ebrahim has warned.
BOL: ‘A political experiment’
Already, militant groups are testing the resolve of the army and police.
In late July 2018, a car bomb set off by militants at a checkpoint in southern Basilan island killed 10 people. Meanwhile, dozens of militants who escaped from southern Marawi city last year after a five-month battle with government forces are busy with frenzied recruitment efforts, the military has said.
“The BOL will require the MILF to stop fighting the Philippine through a military struggle and this will be a big contribution to peace in Mindanao,” Rommel Banlaoi, and expert at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told Benar.
“However, there are still threats to peace emanating from the military activities of other groups,” he said.
Apart from holdover militant veterans of the Marawi battle, the military should be wary of extremist groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf, and watch out for a possible revival of the Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP), Banlaoi said.
Among other things to consider, MILF’s many fighters would be left to relearn military discipline under the strict guidelines of their former battlefield foes, he said. The government has estimated MILF’s strength at 10,000 fighters, but the former rebel group has claimed that its forces are three times as big.
Banlaoi said he recently visited MILF areas in the south, and he had reason to believe that “there can be more than a million armed people who can fight on behalf of the MILF.”
“Thus, BOL will require the MILF leadership to tell all their armed followers in their mass base not to use their arms to fight the central government,” he stressed, while acknowledging that the process of decommissioning MILF’s entire arsenal could be difficult.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law is not a “panacea” for multifaceted problems of conflicts in the south that have been aggravated by the presence of IS, Banlaoi argued. Rather, it is a “political experiment that we all hope will work,” he said.
Also, he said, the law could not be expected to “automatically stop the influx of foreign fighters” to the south, and could “even attract some foreign fighters to come to the south to oppose what they perceive as cooptation with the infidels.”
In such a case, he warned, MILF and the new Bangsamoro government must not lose time formulating ways to prevent more foreign fighters from infiltrating local territory.
“Otherwise, foreign terrorist fighters working in tandem with local fighters can undermine the peace aspired by all,” Banlaoi stressed.
The south’s Muslim population is not entirely united behind BOL. Some local groups have expressed their opposition to the autonomy law.
In October, Sulu provincial Gov. Abdusakur Tan II questioned its legality in a petition before the Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional.
And Cynthia Giani, the mayor of Cotabato city, has been actively campaigning against her city’s inclusion in the expanded autonomous region.
“Whatever comes out of the plebiscite, we really have to respect it but I believe that no matter how hard you campaign to residents of Cotabato City, they have a mind of their own. What the people feel is different from what Manila people perceive,” Giani said.
MILF leaders, at the same time, have warned of trouble brewing should the measure be defeated in next month’s vote, particularly in Basilan, the bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf Group, and in Cotabato, an administrative capital of the Muslim government.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It has been engaged mostly in banditry, kidnapping and bombings.
One of its commanders, Isnilon Hapilon, became the head of the Philippine Islamic State faction. In May 2017, he led an attack and take-over of Marawi city, a major Muslim trading hub. The siege and ensuing five-month battle destroyed the city and left at least 1,200 people dead, mostly militants.
“There should be smooth acceptance from the people. Otherwise, it will spark another group to come out,” Beleno, the political scientist, said.