Southern Philippines: Keeping Normalisation on Track in the Bangsamoro

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Peace in the Philippines’ majority-Muslim region requires disarming 40,000 ex-rebels and encouraging economic development where they live. But progress toward these goals, together called “normalisation”, is sputtering. Both Manila and the former insurgents need to hit the accelerator lest the process lose momentum entirely.

What’s new? Two years into a three-year transition, the “normalisation” process that aims to disarm ex-rebels and pay peace dividends to the Philippines’ Bangsamoro region is behind schedule, partly because of COVID-19. Manila has recently taken steps to restore the momentum, but time is of the essence.

Why does it matter? Normalisation has several essential components, including supplying socio-economic support, deploying peacekeeping teams to boost conflict mitigation efforts and disbanding private militias. Whether or not the government extends the 2022 deadline for the political transition, delays in carrying out these measures could frustrate former insurgents and raise the risk of violence.

What should be done? Both sides should urgently keep working to fulfil the peace deal’s core provisions. The government should redouble efforts to deliver economic and other benefits while helping local authorities address security threats. The ex-rebels should press ahead with disarmament. Donors should increase their development support at this crucial juncture.

Executive Summary

The peace process in the Bangsamoro, the majority-Muslim region of the southern Philippines, requires disarming some 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and ensuring both their smooth integration into civilian life and peace dividends for communities where they live. Two years into a three-year transition period mapped out in a 2014 peace agreement, progress toward these goals, which the deal describes as “normalisation”, is lagging. Fewer than one third of the former guerrillas have laid down their weapons, and Manila has been slow to distribute to them the economic packages meant to entice them to cooperate. With the clock ticking toward 2022 elections that will mark the transition period’s official end, both sides need to up the tempo. The government should accelerate socio-economic support to former rebels and work to disband private armies that could threaten the deal. The MILF should move ahead with disarmament’s next phase despite delays. Donors should boost support for development projects that benefit communities, while ensuring that such projects do not inadvertently fuel tension.

As enshrined in the 2014 peace agreement, the transition launched in 2019 in the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has two tracks. One is a political process, geared at building regional institutions via an interim government, set to conclude in 2022. The other is a broader normalisation agenda, designed to ensure sustainable peace and development for the Bangsamoro’s population after decades of war; it focuses on deliverables rather than a strict timeline, though it is meant to be closely tied to the political track. The peace deal’s roadmap for the normalisation agenda treats its different elements as of equal importance. Disarmament and other security-related matters are on a par with confidence-building measures, development initiatives intended to ensure that locals enjoy a peace dividend, and transitional justice efforts intended to help communities in the BARMM address and move past conflict-related wounds and grievances.

There are plenty of armed groups in the Bangsamoro that might exploit the moment’s fragility. In part because of COVID-19, the parties are struggling to make progress on the roadmap’s targets. While they reached a milestone in disarming 12,000 ex-rebel combatants in early 2020, roughly two thirds who should decommission remain under arms, and there are signs that the MILF may be baulking about moving to the process’s next phase. The ex-rebels are growing impatient with the government’s failure to distribute promised economic packages and delays in bringing development programs to camps where many of their members live. Crucial security measures contemplated by the peace deal, particularly the dissolution of private armies controlled by local power brokers and the deployment of jointly managed local peacekeeping teams, are still at a nascent stage of implementation. Some of these problems were surfacing even before the pandemic. But COVID-19 has made things worse, distracting both regional and national authorities. The hold-ups prompted a debate about whether to extend the transition period past its 2022 deadline, which in recent months has consumed too much of the parties’ time.

Further setbacks to normalisation may increase prospects that MILF fighters return to combat or that other militants endanger the fledgling BARMM. There are plenty of armed groups in the Bangsamoro that might exploit the moment’s fragility. A loss of momentum could also threaten what are currently reasonably peaceful relations among the majority Moro Muslims, Christians and other ethno-religious groups. To bolster the flagging peace process and help Bangsamoro reap its benefits:

The Philippine government should fast-track the promised socio-economic assistance to decommissioned combatants, both to reassure disgruntled ex-guerrillas that they will enjoy a peace dividend, and to signal to the MILF that Manila remains committed to the 2014 peace agreement.

Manila should also work with the interim Bangsamoro government, led by the MILF, to address security concerns that could make ex-rebels reluctant to yield their arms. Most importantly, it should disband private armies loyal to local power brokers, deploy joint peacekeeping teams that include soldiers, police officers and MILF cadre members, and clarify these teams’ exact function, which is likely to involve the local coordination of conflict mitigation efforts by state security forces and the MILF-led interim government.

Although extending the transition past its current 2022 deadline seems likely under the circumstances, the MILF should stick to the decommissioning roadmap in the 2014 peace agreement. It should also work with the Independent Decommissioning Body to resolve potential frustrations with Manila and encourage its combatants to participate in the process, including by sharing information about normalisation with them to avoid any dangerous misconceptions.

The interim regional government should contribute by institutionalising mechanisms to resolve land conflicts and clan feuds. It should also seek to improve the situation of vulnerable minorities in its territory by passing legislation to protect them from violence.

Foreign donors should contribute to the new Normalisation Trust Fund mechanism to support development initiatives that benefit communities and help mitigate conflict risks. These include locally tailored projects not only in the six major MILF camps but also in other conflict-affected areas both in and outside the BARMM.

By taking these steps, the parties can both show their strengthened commitment to normalisation in the Bangsamoro and help keep the vital process on track.

Manila/Brussels, 15 April 2021