The Philippines: The collapse of peace in Mindanao

News and Press Release
Originally published
Jakarta/Brussels, 23 October 2008: A new Supreme Court ruling has ended hope of a peaceful resolution in the near future to the decades-old conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippines government.

The Philippines: The Collapse of Peace in Mindanao, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, says the immediate task now is to prevent escalation of fighting and discourage the government and local officials from arming civilians. Interested governments and donors should press both sides to keep existing ceasefire mechanisms in place, while quietly urging a return to talks.

"Peace talks have broken down before but never in this way, with government institutions and the political elite fundamentally rejecting the achievements of the negotiators. It will be much harder this time, even if talks resume, to simply pick up from where they left off", says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Adviser.

The court ruling on 14 October, preceded by an injunction on 4 August, effectively killed an extraordinary Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that was the culmination of eleven years' negotiation. It acknowledged the Muslims of Mindanao, the Bangsamoro, as a First Nation and gave wide powers to the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) that was to be set up as their homeland. The agreement was negotiated with little public consultation, and when the extent of the BJE's proposed territory was revealed - even though affected communities were to be offered a chance to opt in or out in a plebiscite - local officials demanded the signing be stopped.

A few MILF "renegade" commanders then launched attacks on civilians and the military responded with "punitive actions" against them. Renewed fighting has claimed some 100 civilian lives and displaced some 390,000 but remains largely restricted to areas where these commanders operate. Several factors are militating against a return of the two sides to all-out war, but the Supreme Court ruling and the sense that the strategy of talking peace has failed could lead other commanders to join the "renegades".

"Both sides need to learn lessons from this debacle", says John Virgoe, Crisis Group's South East Asia Project Director. "The government needs to be more engaged with its own negotiating team, head off potential spoilers through consultation or cooptation, and be prepared to deliver what it promises. The MILF needs to show more backbone in dealing with errant commanders".

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1601