By Richard Heydarian
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), previously known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The signing marked a major milestone towards bringing about a measure of peace and prosperity to the Philippines’ troubled south, which has been racked by decades-long insurgencies fueled by separatist and Islamist grievances.
Under the new law, the national government will facilitate the creation of a Bangsamoro (nation of Moros) autonomous area, in the south, without having the south secede from the country. The BOL is part of the historic 2014 peace agreement between the Benigno Aquino III administration, Duterte’s predecessor, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest insurgency group and the most powerful armed insurgents in the south.
Ironically, it took Duterte, who has been portrayed by Aquino and many others as a reckless authoritarian-in-waiting, to finalize the key provisions of the peace agreement. Aquino failed to the pass the law due to widespread public and legislative opposition to it, after a massacre in early 2015, when several members of the MILF killed dozens of Philippine police special forces during a botched counterterror operation.
Duterte, however, was the only major national leader to have openly backed the passage of the BBL in the post-Aquino era. Despite continued public skepticism that the Duterte administration would push the legislation through, the president finally certified the proposed law earlier this year, expending significant political capital to secure sufficient legislative support for the law, which is controversial among many Christian Filipinos, who are skeptical of granting autonomous to the south, with its large Muslim population.
Depending on the result of a plebiscite scheduled later this year, the new autonomous region will cover most, if not all, of the Muslim-majority areas in Mindanao. By giving much of the country’s Muslim minority (there are Muslims in other parts of the Philippines, but most live in Mindanao and other parts of the south) greater socio-economic autonomy, the Philippine government hopes to stem religious and political grievances that have divided the country for centuries.
For much of Philippine history, huge swaths of Mindanao, home to Muslim Moros, were largely controlled by local sultanates, which resisted Western colonial incursions, though Western powers progressively pushed into the sultanates’ traditional spheres of control. While much of the modern day Philippines adopted Christianity under Spain’s three centuries of colonial rule, the Moros largely held on to their traditions and religious beliefs.
After the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Moros were reduced to a minority on their own home island, a process that began in the early era of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines. This was achieved through a combination of systematic dispossession of their lands (with the enforcement of stricter private property laws at the expense of ancestral lands held by Muslim communities), military campaigns, and massive migration of impoverished Christian residents from the north to the fertile lands of Mindanao.
In response to marginalization, which continued after the end of U.S. colonial rule and the onset of Philippine independence, and to perceived threats to Moros’ very existence, tens of thousands of Moros joined nationalist insurgent groups. Eventually, some also joined radical Islamist groups. Both types of insurgents challenged the legitimacy of the Christian-dominated Philippine state to rule the south.
In recognition of what he has called a “historical justice” against Filipino Muslims, Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, promised to advocate for greater autonomy for Muslim-majority regions of the south. The BOL Duterte has launched now paves the way for demobilization of tens of thousands of armed rebels, namely from the MILF, who are expected to be reintegrated into new state institutions in the proposed autonomous southern region. The national government will retain control over, among other areas, law enforcement in the autonomous south.
The local authorities, however, will enjoy significant latitude to determine their own local institutions. And under a new revenue sharing deal in the agreement, the Bangsamoro authorities are obliged to only remit a quarter of revenues generated in the south via taxes and other means of raising revenues to the national government. In other areas, provinces give 40 percent of revenues raised locally through taxes and other means to the national government.
The path ahead, however, remains uncertain, largely due to deep divides among Moros, the depth of poverty and underdevelopment across Muslim-majority regions, and doubts over the ability of former rebels to lay down their arms and integrate with local politics and local institutions. For one, Duterte will have to secure the buy-in of the Tausug-dominated Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the former parent organization of the MILF, which controls the southern regions of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, smaller islands than Mindanao. The Tausug people, a maritime-oriented people in southern Mindanao, have been historical rivals of the land-based Maguindanao people in mainland Mindanao. The Tausug domination of the MNLF, which led the post-independence struggle for liberation of Moros in the 1960s onwards, alienated the Maguindanao members, who eventually broke away and created a more Islamist-oriented splinter faction, the MILF, in the 1980s. The split became final when the MNLF struck a peace agreement with the Philippine government in the 1990s. The MILF continued the fight separately, emerging as the main rebel group in the country over the past two decades.
It remains to be seen if the Tausug leaders, particularly former MNLF leader Nur Misuari, will support the new Bangsamoro entity, which will be likely dominated by the rival Maguindanao tribal group, which formed the MILF.
There is also the challenge of convincing more prosperous and diverse regions in Mindanao, like those in Cotabato, to join the new proposed political entity. Some regional leaders and warlords in these areas may prefer to stay under the jurisdiction of Manila rather than face the possible dominance of the MILF leadership in an autonomous southern region.
According to surveys, in fact a majority of Filipinos nationally are still undecided about the autonomy deal, while many Mindanao residents remain skeptical about it as well. There is also a high chance that some of the critics of the BOL will question its constitutionality at the Supreme Court, raising concerns over its implications for the Philippines’ territorial integrity.
Add to this the resilience of various radical groups, including several affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, which view the MILF leaders as apostates for compromising with the Christian government and have called for complete separation from Manila in favor of a Sharia-based society. Despite the magnitude of challenges ahead, the MILF leadership and the Duterte administration, however, are seemingly in firm agreement that the only way forward is to stay the course and push forward the peace deal. Returning to the decades-long armed conflict is, to them, apparently not an option.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and author of Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (Palgrave, 2018).