Updated: Mar 8, 2019
On 25 January 2019, voters in Philippines’ Muslim south overwhelmingly voted for the creation of an autonomous region called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Many hoped this would bring peace in a region that has seen decades of fighting between rebel groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government security forces.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country with a small but geographically concentrated region of Muslims mainly in parts of Mindanao in southern Philippines. With government-sponsored policies like the Homestead Program in the 1970s, which encouraged landless Christians to move to the southern areas populated by the Muslims, tensions over landownership and the disenfranchisement of the Moros drastically increased. This led to the foundation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from which emerged the more well-known Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1977, a rebel group fighting for Moro self-determination.
The Abu Sayyaf is a jihadist militant and pirate group that had carried out a number of high-profile kidnappings between 2011 and 2016. Both MILF and MNLF distance themselves from the organisation, which the Philippine government has labeled a terrorist group. From 2014, Abu Sayyaf has also pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and was at the head of the capture of, and prolonged battle, in Marawi in 2017. Both MNLF and MILF have stood in opposition to the group and its ideology, assisting the Filipino government in the recapture of the city.
WHAT DOES THE NEW LAW DO?
The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is expected to be fully in place by 2022, with a parliament and chief minister elected. In the short-term the revolutionary armed group of MILF, which has been the most prominent advocate of Moro self-determination, will form part of the transition government. As part of the peace agreement, MILF promises to decommission 30% of its combatants and weapons. In exchange, the Philippine government will increase the amount of development funds distributed to the Bangsamoro to US$950 million over the next ten years, while allowing the regional government to keep a larger chunk of the tax revenue generated within its borders and national receipts.
This is not the first time an autonomous region has been set up: The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created in 1990 following peace negotiations between the MNLF and the Philippine government. Despite initial agreements and hopes of success, a rebellion was restarted in 2001 after Nur Misuari, the governor of ARMM and chief of MNLF, accused the government of reneging on the peace agreement and not devolving sufficient autonomy to the region.
Yet, many are hopeful about the prospects of the new peace negotiations. For one, the government promises significant devolution of power to the local authorities, while retaining control of the police and security forces. Organisations like the MILF have also been responsive and cooperative, evident their support of the central government’s efforts to recapture the city of Marawi in 2017. With so much expectations placed on the new regional government, what it must do is to effectively utilise additional powers under the Bangsamoro law to govern and to convince the population that it is not merely an implementer of government policies that are unjust and prejudicial to the people of Moro. Otherwise, we might yet see a repeat of history.