Southern Philippines’ Conflict: Quest for a Settlement

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Chongtham Gunnamani Research Intern, IPCS email:

The 24th round of peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end the decades old conflict was concluded on 11 January 2012 at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The joint statement of the talk spoke of constructive discussion on substantive issues between the parties. The talk apparently also formulated a draft road map towards a resolution of the Bangsamoro demand for an independent Muslim state.

Nature of the conflict and implications for regional security Geographically, the Moro insurgencies are active in the provinces of southern Philippines, such as Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago, and other neighboring islands, which are primarily Muslim majority. Various conflicts have resulted in huge causalities, displacements, and claimed many non-combatant victims. The conflict arrests not only development in the region but also stunts the overall economic growth of the country, because dealing with it takes huge manpower and resources.

Moreover, the international community is concerned that MILF is linked with the international network of Islamic extremism such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and al Qaeda. There are reports which claim that other Filipino Islamist groups - Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Sulaiman movement - have linkages with the network, which poses a great threat to the regional security of Southeast Asia. Keeping this in mind, policy-makers estimate that resolving the issue of MILF in southern Philippines would help in weakening the overall structure of Islamic extremism. Claims have also been made that incidents such as the Bali serial bombings, issue of sea pirates, extortions, kidnappings and various forms of trafficking are somehow linked to the pan-Islamic network.

Malaysia’s stake President of GPH Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had invited Dr Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia in 2001 to facilitate the talks with MILF. She might have thought that Malaysia being a neighbour and a Muslim country, which is also geographically closer to the disputed territory, could play a major role in resolving the conflict. There are certain crucial reasons for Malaysia’s involvement as a facilitator in the talks. Geographical proximity and cultural affinity on the one hand, and Malaysia’s interest in the territory’s rich natural resources, which has reportedly huge hydrocarbon reserves, on the other. Malaysia also wants to play a more active role in regional affairs and give a boost to its competition with Indonesia in the region. Maintaining regional stability is a point of convergence and interest for all the states.

On the talks For a mutually agreed resolution of this conflict, a road map for peace talks was initiated in 2001 between the GPH and MILF with an agreement of a ceasefire. The talks have been continuing at a slow pace, barring the operation of an International Monitoring Team (IMT) to observe implementation of the ceasefire. It is appreciable that MILF is willing to undertake a political dialogue and has now agreed to moderate their earlier demand of a sovereign Moro state to a federal or a sub-state with greater political autonomy in its claimed territories within the Philippines state.

In the current talks, Marvic Leonen heads the GPH, Mohagher Iqbal leads the MILF and Tengku Dato Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed is the Malaysian facilitator. In the last talks, no substantial achievement was made due to a vast gap between the GPH offers and MILF demands. Despite this, the Malaysian facilitator stated that “this is the opportunity that we have to explore because both sides are willing to come together.”

The MILF’s political demands are based on what they called Draft Comprehensive Political Compact (DCPC), which is also considered a more compromised position for the resolution of the Moro political question. The DCPC demands are based on five points or what they refer to as their rights. The rights are a recognition of Bangsamoro people as a distinct national identity, the return of all their homeland or ancestral domain, genuine self-governance or self-rule over their homeland, collective ownership over all the natural resources found in their homeland, and the determination of their future political status as embodied in the MILF-GPH Tripoli Agreement on Peace of June 2001. (Source: Statement of Maulana Alonto: MILF Delegation, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: 6-7 Dec 2011).

For the GPH, the DCPC demands are difficult to accept on two major grounds. First, the territory claimed by the MILF as their ancestral domain is very vast; an almost double of the 2008-formed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). If the GPH were to grant the claimed territory, there would be a huge non-Muslim evacuation, which is practically not possible. Secondly, the unitary nature of the Filipino Constitution makes the conceptualization and creation of a politically autonomy sub-state within the larger state difficult. To arrive at a consensus to change the overall constitutional framework is again a big ask for the government. Besides, both sides have different interpretations of autonomy. It remains to be seen whether this long process of dialogue will lead to more flexible positions on both sides, and eventually, to a solution.