Philippines: The Final Peace for Mindanao?


Professor Mark Turner

On 14 August, people in 15 provinces and 14 cities of western and central Mindanao went to the polls to decide whether they wanted to be incorporated into the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The result was a resounding ‘no’. Only one province (Basilan) and one city (Marawi) voted for inclusion. They will now join the original four member provinces of the ARMM in the ‘expanded’ autonomous region.

The original ARMM was prescribed in the1986 Constitution as a way to resolve what the government regarded as the ‘Mindano problem’. The ‘problem’ has been a conflict which has pitted the original Muslim peoples of Mindanao against the Christian settlers and the government in Manila. Since the early 1970s there had been armed hostilities between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) causing considerable loss of life and human suffering. At first the MNLF called for secession but later toned down their demands to autonomy. An agreement was reached in Tripoli in 1976 but its implementation under President Marcos was never accepted by the MNLF. The second attempt to resolve the ‘Mindanao problem’” was the ARMM under President Aquino in 1989. It was similarly unsuccessful. The MNLF opposed the new arrangement as did the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). There was enormous fear and opposition among the numerically dominant Christian populations. Only four provinces agreed to join the ARMM and they were geographically non-contiguous, thus making a most peculiar ‘region’.

President Ramos was the next to try his hand at crafting an acceptable and lasting peace agreement. He came up with the idea of a Southern Zone of Peace and Development (SZPOD) which would be a transition into an expanded ARMM. Ramos succeeded in securing the cooperation of the MNLF and made the peace agreement with them in 1996. Implementation of phase one did not however persuade Mindanao’s population that ARMM membership would bring them benefits. Many Christian politicians and their constituents maintained steadfast opposition to the SZOPAD and ARMM. Development investment certainly increased under the transitional SZOPAD arrangement but the task is enormous as SZOPAD comprises some of the country’s poorest provinces with the worst development indicators.

Full-scale warfare between government and MILF in 2000 demonstrated the precariousness of peace in Mindanao. The widely publicised kidnapping and ransom of foreign tourist from a Malaysian resort and their transport to the ARMM province of Sulu by the notorious Abu Sayyaf also acted as an antidote to hopes for a lasting peace settlement. When the Abu Sayyaf repeated their kidnap-for-ransom act on a Philippine resort in 2001 further damage was done to peace prospects under the 1996 agreement.

The question now is what next for Mindanao? Only 18 per cent of Mindano’s population reside in the ARMM and there are no plans for a future expansion. The Abu Sayyaf are still on the run with hostages in Basilan and military officers have been accused of helping them evade capture. Nur Misuari, long-time MNLF leader, and President Ramos’s partner in peace, is losing his grip on the MNLF. On the bright side the MILF has agreed to a ceasefire with the government and is cooperating closely with the MNLF. President Arroyo has abandoned her predecessor’s confrontational approach to Mindanao. She appears anxious to secure a lasting peace so that the people of Mindanao can experience security and sustained development, conditions which have eluded them for many decades. There is a very long way to go to transform these aims into reality.

WATCHPOINT: Postscript: President Arroyo immediately condemned the attacks against ‘the leader of the free world and civilized society’ and later gave full support for President Bush's ’call for justice’. On a practical note Arroyo also offered use of airfields to the Americans. The Catholic Bishops sanctioned the use of ‘just punishment’ in relation to the attacks. Government revealed the existence of Oplan Aquila, the plan to evacuate thousands of Filipino contract workers from the Middle East should it be necessary. There was also renewed scrutiny of the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for its kidnappings but known to have links with international terrorists. Police and military officials alleged ties exist between international terrorists and other organizations, communities, and individuals in Mindanao.


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