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Peace derivatives and probabilities in Muslim Mindanao (Part 1)
An Analysis of the Arroyo Administration’s Conflict Management in the Southern Philippines
Don Agrasada

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This paper aims to provide a preliminary assessment of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s conflict management strategies in the Southern Philippines. Employing published and unpublished resources, negotiation and conflict transformation models were analyzed against the backdrop of the inherited problems and derived solutions of the Arroyo administration. Options and alternatives have been proposed for a broader peace process.

I. Introduction

Peace and war alternatives exist for Mindanao. The present realities, rooted in the perceived injustices to the Muslim minority, are composites of different government policies. The Arroyo administration has tackled the problem concurrent with its fight against poverty and the international war against terrorism. In 2001, Arroyo declared a unilateral ceasefire, and formed a peace panel to resume the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In the same year, an all-out offensive was declared against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Mindanao has no clear lines and no specific solutions. It is a complex terrain of disjointed networks where the synthetic boundaries were imposed by the same forces and political alignments which created its socioeconomic differences. It is within this context of uneven economic development that an identity conflict surfaced. Secessionist issues festered and poured over each succeeding government, punctuated by alternating peace agreements and full-scale war. The government and Muslim rebels found themselves in an entrapping process, with each side maintaining an increasingly inflexible stand. No political model has been found to fully sustain peace and development in Mindanao.

Geoeconomic configurations underscore Mindanao’s viability. Located 800 km south of Manila, Mindanao is an island economy rich with food and industrial crops, as well as mineral and marine resources. Business opportunities include fruit and vegetable production and processing, seaweed farming and processing, light manufacturing, furniture and wood products, telecommunications, energy and water sources development, port and airport development, industrial tree and fruit tree plantation, coconut coir and activated carbon manufacturing. In addition, 40% of the country’s food supply is being produced by 20% of Mindanao’s population. To tap these potentials, the government has pledged to end the conflict.

This paper aims to provide a preliminary assessment of President Arroyo’s policies and conflict management strategies in the Southern Philippines, as well as recommendations where appropriate. It is important to note that the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) based its struggle on the Palestine model, while the MILF drew inspiration from the US-backed Soviet-Afghan war. In view of these parallels, the lessons learned from Mindanao may help in resolving other ongoing or future conflicts.

Although geographic and time limitations have precluded the use of primary sources and other tools of data gathering, such as participant and non-participant observation, I was able to optimize my access to secondary published and unpublished resources. Focusing on conflict management, I propose to address the following: What policies and strategies have been formulated and applied by the Arroyo administration to resolve the Mindanao crisis, particularly the twin problems posed by the MILF and Abu Sayyaf factions? What other options and alternatives can the government pursue to address the long-standing issues of secessionism? With respect to the international war on terrorism, how has the government’s forged alliances impacted its policies on the south? It is within these contexts that the 2001 peace process is revisited and post-9/11 implications are analyzed.

II. Methods (Conceptual Framework)

This paper aims to analyze the policies and conflict management strategies of the Arroyo administration, as well as present, where appropriate, alternatives and recommendations for maximizing integrative potentials. Due to the expansive scope of the Mindanao conflict, I have set my research parameters to include a conceptual framework of ethnic conflicts and their resolution mainly utilizing the Fisher-Ury model; a historical perspective and description of Arroyo’s policies; recommendations for finalizing the peace agreement with the MILF; and strengthening the confidence-building and peacekeeping stages of conflict management.

I have employed published and unpublished sources of data. In evaluating published sources, I have used the following criteria: author’s credentials; accuracy; objectivity; reputation of affiliated organizations; reputation of publisher; and peer-reviewed journals. In the case of web sources, I have checked for authority, accuracy and currency through the author and institution which published the document. A separate section on Review of Related Literature has been purposely omitted since critiques of references have been included in the text. My presentation and analyses of Arroyo’s governance do not include extrapolations beyond June 2003.

Conceptual Framework in Managing Ethnic Conflicts

Mindanao is a shared territory, sociodemographically inhabited by Lumads (highlanders), Muslims and Christians. Christians make up 75% of the population; Lumads, 5%; while Muslims constitute the remaining 20%. There are 13 ethnolinguistic Muslim groups, historically clustered in the Sulu archipelago and the island of Mindanao. These clusters have become the basis of present-day Muslim movements. For semantic purposes, I have used Mindanao to refer to the Southern Philippine provinces and islands collectively.

Ethnolinguistic divisions and escalating political and religious conflicts characterized Mindanao in the 1960s. To override ethnic lines and form a unified resistance movement, Philippine Muslims appropriated the term Bangsamoro (Moro nation) to mean a distinct “nationality” deserving of its own sovereignty.

The 30-year intranational ethnic conflict has alienated Philippine Muslims from the defined state. De Goor et al define ethnic conflict as a situation where groups sharing a collective ethnic criteria such as history, destiny, culture, practices, and beliefs, mobilize and make claims on behalf of their collective interests against the state or other political actors.

Conflict resolution and conflict management are complementary processes involving negotiation, mediation, confidence-building, and peacekeeping. I propose an education-advocacy-negotiation matrix similar to what Curle has prescribed when moving from unpeaceful to peaceful situations. Education may take the form of consultation, meetings and public fora to raise awareness and restore equity. Advocacy involves working with, and supporting those pursuing change; this is usually undertaken by non-government organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations (CSOs). Negotiation, as Lederach pointed out, takes place when opposing groups recognize the need to work with each other to achieve their goals.

In constructing the negotiation process, I adhered to the Fisher-Ury model of an interest-based approach, with certain modifications. This alternative method of bargaining separates the people from the problem; focuses on interests; invents options for mutual gain; and uses objective criteria. A principled negotiation within the Philippine context is viable given that the opposing parties, i.e., government and Muslim rebels, have a shared interest in finding a mutually acceptable solution.

I propose that negotiators and mediators expand on the given strategies in designing specific steps to fit Mindanao’s needs. For instance, while the Fisher-Ury model is largely interest-based, it does not exclude positions. Positions have an important function in the negotiation dynamics of the Mindanao conflict. Better arguments should thus be constructed based on their merits.

With respect to mediation, this can be used to redirect the current stalemate to focus on jointly solving the underlying issues and overcoming cognitive biases. In the case of a power imbalance, the mediators can enhance the negotiation power of the weaker party through private caucuses. The negotiators, on the other hand, can enhance their ability to influence the other side through the power of skill, knowledge, good relationship, an elegant solution, legitimacy, commitment, and a strong BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). A well-developed alternative may serve to optimize a minimally acceptable agreement.

To complement the negotiation process, it is imperative that confidence-building activities, such as relief and rehabilitation, are initiated immediately. A successful negotiation culminating with a peace pact requires a comprehensive peace-building and peacekeeping agenda. This includes a full array of processes, approaches and stages needed to transform the conflict toward more sustainable and peaceful relationships.

III. Roots and Costs of the Mindanao Conflict: A Historical Overview

A confluence of factors defined the sociopolitical and economic contours in Mindanao. The conflict, rooted in colonial prejudice, intensified following the government’s marginalization of Philippine Muslims. Militarization, lawlessness and land grabbing led to a struggle for an independent Mindanao in post-Independence Philippines. This section charts the history of the Mindanao conflict in order to acquire the context in which the Arroyo government has framed its resolutions.

Factors in the Rise of Muslim Secessionism

Mindanao historians have pointed out that established Muslim communities were in the process of evolving into a centralized nation-state structure when the Spaniards arrived in 1521. The conditions at the time were propelled by the people’s long involvement in a proto-world system in competition for power and wealth.

Islam was introduced in 1275 through the movement of merchants and sufis (teachers) along the trade route that originated from Arabia through central Asia to India and China. The Sulu archipelago was particularly strategic, straddling the southern and northern trade routes; the ethnolinguistic groups at the time embraced Islam, thus securing their mercantile and militant identity. Other than their new religion, however, the people did not share anything in common that could distinguish them as a group.

As Islam spread northward to the Visayas and Luzon, identities and allegiances were so diffuse as to withstand Spanish-imposed Christianity. While the Spaniards were able to control and convert to Christianity the northern and central tiers of the islands, they failed to colonize the more organized Muslim sultanates of the south.

American colonialism reshaped political and economic structures with an assimilation campaign which effectively neutralized Muslim resistance. The American colonial government established several agricultural colonies in different parts of Mindanao to demonstrate that Christian and non-Christian communities could co-exist peacefully, and to hasten the cultivation and development of agricultural lands. American influence also provided an alternative lingua franca as English eventually became a neutral political language for contemporary Muslim separatists.

After independence, the Western-Christian oriented government sponsored large-scale migrations from the northern and central regions to the agricultural parts of the South. This influx caused inevitable dislocations, and relegated the Muslims and indigenous Lumads to the socioeconomic periphery. By the 1960s, dispossessed of their ancestral lands and their population reduced to 25%, Philippine Muslims saw the need to protect their way of life.

Two major shifts contributed to the rise of modern Muslim nationalism: the struggle to realize social and political aspirations in the face of local political conflicts, and the escalation of violence in the context of national dualistic factions. Between these were the pivotal events which effectively, although temporarily, served to override ethnic fault lines: the Jabidah massacre; the creation of armed groups such as the anti-Muslim Ilagas (Rats) and the anti-Christian Blackshirts; and a general perception of a government-endorsed anti-Muslim policy.

In 1969, the MNLF emerged as a popular broad-based revolutionary movement, with members primarily from the Tausug, Samal and Yakan groups, and associations with other Muslim countries such as Libya. Its chairman, Nur Misuari, appropriated the term Bangsamoro to denominate the citizens of their newly-imagined nation who are separate and distinct from the Filipinos in Luzon and the Visayas. The MNLF, however, was seen as Tausug-dominated from the beginning, and the term failed to unite the people. The case of the MNLF drew the attention of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC); it published the grievances of the separatists, and pressured the Marcos government to negotiate with the group. The OIC also recognized the MNLF as the legitimate representative of the Bangsamoros, and granted it observer-status and quasi-diplomatic privileges and participation in Islamic Summits and in the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), as well as political asylum and other forms of assistance.

Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law on 21 September 1972. His efforts to extend military control in the South provoked open rebellion, and escalated the conflict to a full-scale civil war. By 1975, the 30,000-strong front had fought the Philippine military to a stalemate. Conservative estimates point to a total of 60,000 killed and 300,000 displaced. The economic toll has been approximated at US$3B.

Comparative Summary of Government Peace Initiatives

The political and military impasse, as well as threats of an oil embargo, had forced the Marcos government to call for a ceasefire and work out a political settlement with the MNLF. On 27 December 1976, the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines)-MNLF Tripoli Agreement was concluded under the mediation of the OIC. It granted autonomy to 13 provinces and 9 cities in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan Islands. Implicitly recognizing the MNLF as the official representative of Philippine Muslims, the peace accord provided for an autonomous regional government with executive, legislative and judicial powers, and a regional security force independent of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). However, implementation disputes led to a plebiscite where only 10 provinces opted for autonomy. The Marcos government established regional governments in central Mindanao and Sulu which were not autonomous in their mandate and framework. Within six months, war resumed, and the Tripoli Agreement was never genuinely implemented.

Factional infighting and weakening of popular support for the MNLF led to the group’s fragmentation. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which separated from the MNLF in 1977 due to disputes over the peace agreement, MNLF leadership, and other ethnic antagonisms, emerged in the 1980s with significant political strength in Central Mindanao. With 15,000 members, it seeks to establish an independent Islamic state and is the only rebel group capable of waging a protracted war against the government.

By the time, Corazon Aquino became president, the government was faced with two major Muslim secessionist groups. Aquino focused on democratic governance and the promotion of peace and development. She declared a policy of reconciliation, and arranged a 60-day ceasefire with the MNLF in December 1986. As the MILF was still not recognized as a legitimate representative of Philippine Muslims, the government negotiated solely with the MNLF. Article 10 Section 15 of the ratified 1987 Constitution and the subsequent Organic Act (RA 6734) created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The special plebiscite which decided ARMM’s territorial coverage resulted in a negative vote and a geographically non-contiguous region where only four provinces, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-tawi, voted for inclusion. The MNLF, MILF and other Philippine Muslims opposed the outcome.

President Fidel Ramos’ determination to forge a comprehensive and enduring settlement with the MNLF resulted in the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. Because the prerequisites of Ramos’ economic development agenda were political stability and national unity, Ramos appointed a National Unification Commission (NUC) to create a comprehensive and participatory consultation process, and develop strategies for engaging in exploratory talks with all armed groups. The NUC produced the Six Paths to Peace which became the operational framework for the Philippine peace process.

After four years of negotiations, the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement was signed on 2 September 1996. Basing it on the original Tripoli Agreement, it sought the support not only of Philippine Muslim leaders and civilians but also of OIC-member states which is critical for post-war reconstruction. The agreement was to be implemented in two phases: the first phase established the Special Zone of Peace (SZOPAD) covering 14 provinces and 10 cities which were to be the focus of intensive peace and development efforts; and the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), a transition mechanism designed to oversee the development efforts in the SZOPAD which came under the governance of Nur Misuari. The three-year trial period was to demonstrate to Muslim and non-Muslim residents the economic benefits of peace under an autonomous Mindanao, as well as to integrate MNLF elements with the Philippine military and Philippine National Police (PNP). The second phase called for the establishment of a New Regional Autonomous Government (NRAG) to meet Moro aspirations for real autonomy. The phased transition required Congress to amend or repeal the existing Autonomy Law (RA 6734), pass a new Organic Act incorporating the pertinent provisions of the agreement, and submit the Act for approval in a plebiscite. Implicit in the agreement was a shared understanding of the territorial claim of the Philippine Muslims and their right to self-determination.

The 1996 Agreement, however, failed in its implementation. The Philippine Congress, which was excluded in the peace process, took steps to limit or eliminate funding. Following protests and amendments from members of Congress and the Senate, as well as pressures from the Mindanao Christians not to concede to the Muslims, President Ramos issued Executive Order 371 in October 1996 which diluted the substantive provisions of the Agreement, including the allocation of funds for the transitional structures, and the internal taxation authority of the SPCPD. The SPCPD was unable to initiate development planning in the region, and in effect, became a mechanism for conflict-regulation, not conflict resolution.

The GRP-MNLF peace pact affirmed the legitimacy of the Bangsamoro cause as well as maintained the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippine Republic; the whole process, however, lacked transparency and greater consensus, leading to the creation of powerless structures and watered-down provisions.

Following the 1996 Agreement, the Ramos government signed the 1997 Declaration of General Cessation of Hostilities with the MILF. By this time, the MILF had organized the people into parallel governments in several provinces, towns, and villages in Mindanao, and structured its program based on Islamization, strengthening of the organization, military build-up, and self-reliance.

On 18 August 1998, newly-elected President Joseph Estrada issued a Memorandum of Instructions (MOI), which led to exploratory talks in 1999. The talks collapsed in 2000 due to problems with the implementation of the terms of the ceasefire. This was followed by an all-out war offensive which took Camp Abubakar and 47 other MILF camps. The 2000 campaign did not diminish the capabilities of the MILF; they were able to regroup and establish new camps.

Impeachment proceedings against President Estrada for his alleged involvement in illegal gambling operations plunged the country into a political and economic crisis. In January 2001, after a second popular revolt, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn in by the Supreme Court as Estrada’s constitutional successor.

The Case of the GRP-MILF Peace Process

President Arroyo pledged to end the conflict in Mindanao. Her five-point agenda included fostering peace by renouncing the use of force to promote political interests; development based on political stability; good governance; complete acceptance of national sovereignty and territorial integrity based on the Constitution and rule of law; and respect for a multi-ethnic society.

The Tripoli Agreement on Peace signed by the government and the MILF on 22 June 2001 committed to reach a negotiated political settlement of the Mindanao problem. The standards of legitimacy used were the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, 1996 Final Agreement on Peace between the Government and the MNLF, the 1997 Agreement for General Cessation of Hostilities, the 1998 General Framework of the Agreement of Intent, International Humanitarian Laws, Internationally recognized Human Rights, and the OIC Resolution No. 56/9-P (IS). The salient points discussed and agreed upon include the return, relief and rehabilitation of evacuees, and joint-development projects in conflict-affected areas.

The two parties have agreed that rehabilitation and development projects should be under MILF leadership except when public funds are available. This paves the way for the generation of private funds especially from OIC countries. The provision concerning the moral and spiritual development of the Bangsamoro people, advancement of the general intent of the Moros and other indigenous peoples in Mindanao, and the Bangsamoro’s right to determine their own future and political status, address the issue of self-determination and the MILF struggle to establish a system of life and governance based on Islamic law.

Two complementing documents were agreed upon after Tripoli: the Implementing Guidelines on the Security Aspect of the Tripoli Agreement of 2001, and the Implementing Guidelines on the Humanitarian, Rehabilitation and Development Aspects of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of 2001. The negotiating panels, however, failed to reach an agreement on developing war-ravaged regions and resolving claims to ancestral lands.

Several factors contributed to the erosion of the peace process: unresolved issues on land; ceasefire violations; conversion of MILF camps to military headquarters; political opposition to the negotiations; heightened MILF attacks against military forces; the government’s counterforce and punitive action against the MILF; and probable MILF involvement in terrorist activities. Formal talks were suspended in 2002, and shifted to back-channel mode.

*Don Agrasada is currently the Managing Director of Philippines National Bank.

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