It may have taken 13 years, but the Philippine government and MILF are now ready to sign a final agreement.
IN a Kuala Lumpur hotel at about 10pm on Jan 25, negotiators from the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) thrashed out the sticking points on the “annexes” or key aspects of a planned autonomous region in Mindanao.
“There were issues that needed to be resolved right until the final hours of the talks but there was a strong sense of relief by all present that they had finally arrived,” said a source.
The conclusion of talks on the annexes, which paved the way for the signing of a final peace agreement, marked a new high in the 13-year peace process that Malaysia had brokered.
Committed to helping bring about peace in the region, Malaysia first became involved as a facilitator in 2001 when the conflict was raging.
A ceasefire agreement was reached in 2003. In the ensuing year, an international monitoring team (IMT) headed by Malaysia started to operate.
The fighting reduced after the IMT was set up, with the number of armed skirmishes dropping from 569 in 2003 to fewer than 20 a year over the next four years.
The peace process nearly derailed in 2008 when the Philippine Supreme Court overturned an agreement on ancestral domain that both sides had inked, causing armed hostilities to flare up. The talks resumed three years later.
An international contact group (ICG), made up of states and non-governmental organisations, was set up in December 2009 to help revive the stalled peace process.
The push that got the ball rolling again came from Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Both took office within a year of each other, with Najib becoming prime minister in April 2009 and Aquino’s swearing in as president in June 2010.
The talks resumed in 2011, culminating in the completion of negotiations on the four annexes.
Stabilising a region in which hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced due to conflict could, in the long run, reduce the problem of illegal immigration in Sabah.
There is also the payoff from improved security.
“South-East Asia is a region of stability except for several pockets of conflicts, all of which are potential nests for militants.
“Resolving the conflict in Mindanao means reducing one more potential sanctuary for militants,” said the source.
An improved perception of security will help draw in investors, including from Malaysia, into the southern Philippines.
The establishment of the Bangsamoro is planned for 2016, close to the creation of the Asean Economic Community by the end of 2015 that aims to spur the pace of development throughout the region.
“Both sides have been firm in their belief that this is a conflict that cannot be won through arms and the only option is through negotiations,” said the source.
The extensive nature of the deal has few peers, the closest being the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.
Michael Vatikiotis, Asia regional director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which is a member of the ICG, said the Mindanao peace process is special because the process was inclusive and reflected a popular will to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict.
“The agreement itself is as comprehensive as possible and is a model of its kind.
“It builds on the shortcomings of previous agreements and ensures that autonomy is accompanied by demobilisation and monitoring mechanisms to insure against a resort to arms in the future,” said Vatikiotis, referring to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that the Bangsamoro autonomous region will replace.
The ARMM was set up after the Philippine government signed a peace deal in 1996 with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – an armed rebel group which the MILF broke away from.
The source said the ARMM was a failed experiment by Aquino’s predecessors to force the integration of the region into the Philippine system by creating political, economic and governance structures that was far from the aspirations of the mainly Muslim local population.
“The proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region, on the other hand, is more realistic as it acknowledges the need for an asymmetric relationship where both sides live within the same political body but with different political, governance and economic structures,” said the source.
For example, while the ARMM is headed by a governor in line with the Philippine republic’s system of governance, the Bangsamoro will be self-administered, with a ministerial form of government led by a Chief Minister who has more clearly-defined powers.
Despite the upcoming signing of the comprehensive deal, challenges remain ahead.
There are other smaller groups which remain opposed to the peace process.
They include fighters aligned to former MNLF leader and ARMM governor Nur Misuari, who alleges the Bangsamoro initiative will leave the people shortchanged.
Vatikiotis said the Philippines and MILF are hoping that potential spoilers on the ground will see the benefit of the new Bangsamoro entity and come on board.
“Intensive efforts will surely be needed to ensure other Moro factions, such as the MNLF, are given the opportunity to converge with this agreement,” said Vatikiotis.