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  • The Southern Philippines in 2013One Step Forward, One Step Back
  • Bryony Lau (bio)

The peace process in the southern Philippines is making progress after a banner year in 2012, in which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government signed a peace pact a decade-and-a-half in the making. Known as the framework agreement, it will grant real autonomy to Muslim-majority Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago, and put the MILF in charge of a new region, the Bangsamoro, for an interim period. President Benigno Aquino III has set the stage for the MILF’s transformation from an antagonist of the Philippine state into a mainstream political actor.

In 2013, the MILF and the government slogged through yet more negotiations necessary to flesh out further details of the framework agreement. But the real drama lay elsewhere. Into the limelight stepped a descendant of the sultan of Sulu whose followers invaded eastern Malaysia with tragic consequences in February and March; an alleged new terrorist alliance whom the government blamed for a sharp uptick in violence in central Mindanao in July and August; and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the MILF’s predecessor, which fought a weeks-long battle with the military in September.

When the discontents and opportunists circling the peace process acted provocatively, the MILF and the government found themselves working together to shield the framework agreement from the fallout. Through these incidents, this chapter examines the moderating effect of the peace process on the MILF, and the potential implications for the southern Philippines in the years ahead. [End Page 260]

The 2012 Framework Agreement and the Peace Process

Shortly after signing the framework agreement in a lavish ceremony in the presidential palace in Manila on 15 October 2012, the MILF held a press conference at its headquarters, Camp Darapanan, a forty-five minute drive outside Cotabato City, in central Mindanao.1 The camp sits on the edge of the Liguasan marsh, a watery expanse home to communities sympathetic to the MILF. The chairman, Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, appeared dressed in a dark suit with a striped tie and made brief remarks from behind a lectern to the journalists perched on plastic chairs set in neat rows before him. Murad was exuding a statesman-like aura that day. The atmosphere was in stark contrast to Murad’s last encounter with the press at Camp Darapanan. In July the same year, journalists were ushered onto an adjacent field to watch a “show of force” by heavily armed MILF fighters, who raised their guns overhead in unison.2 The shift in content and tone foreshadows the many changes in store for the MILF in the years ahead.

The broad contours of a political solution to end ethno-nationalist insurgency in the southern Philippines have been in place for decades: autonomy, and granting some form of power, economic or political, to the insurgents. Many permutations have already been tried: two separate autonomous zones established by President Ferdinand Marcos following the 1976 Tripoli agreement with the MNLF; the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) created unilaterally in 1989 by President Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother; and an expanded and modified ARMM run by MNLF personalities for the nine years after President Fidel Ramos signed the 1996 final peace agreement with them.

ARMM stayed in place after the MNLF era, reverting to the control of local warlord-cum-politicians, but it is widely, particularly by the MILF, derided for falling short of genuine autonomy. It depends wholly on Manila for its budget, and its executive (a governor) and regional legislature that sit in Cotabato City are relatively weak compared to the five provincial governments (in central Mindanao, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur; and in the Sulu archipelago, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) and municipal governments that lie within ARMM’s boundaries. The MILF peace process, which began in 1997, and has been facilitated by Malaysia since 2001, focuses on devising new autonomy arrangements that will be significantly better, in terms of territory and powers, than ARMM. [End Page 261]

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came close to a breakthrough deal with the MILF in...