Prof. Alpaslan Özerdem*
The 2009 cessation of governmental offensive to eliminate key figures of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has imparted fresh impetus to the peace process in Mindanao, Philippines. Moreover, with the election of Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III (also known as ‘Nonoy’), son of the former President Corazon Aquino, as the 15th President of the country in May 2010, the peace process in Mindanao is likely to enter a new phase. However, a closer look to the complexity of its root causes and dynamics of its historical development shows that the protracted conflict in Mindanao which killed over 160,000 people will require a high level of political determination, well seasoned diplomatic skills and a full commitment from all parties involved.
In Mindanao, there are 13 Islamized ethno -linguistic groups who are known as the ‘Bangsamoro people’ (1) and the non-Muslim indigenous tribes are collectively called the ‘Lumads’ and comprise of more than 20 ethno-linguistic groups. In 1903, Muslims comprised approximately 76 per cent of the population in the islands of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan, but by 1990, due to the central government’s resettlement policy of Christians, this had gone down to 19 per cent (2). These demo- graphic changes were accompanied by other shifts under the colonial policies of Spain and the United States, having a detrimental impact on free and equal communal access to water, forests, land and other natural resources. Furthermore, the sultanates were undermined and rights of Moros and
other indigenous peoples in terms of traditional land holdings, occupancy were invalidated (3).
Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III, also known as Nonoy Aquino, 15th President of the Philippines
Islam traces a long lineage in the region. Introduced by Muslim traders in the late 14 the Century, it imparted structure and unity amongst the diverse ethno-linguistic groups of western Mindanao, and enabled the establishment of control over non-Muslim inhabitants. Islam also created a dialectical opposition to Western influences with the advent of Spanish and American influence in the archipelago. Furthermore, the post independence Philippine state is best described as premature and weak, devoid of a cohesive national consciousness and relative autonomy from the parochial interests of dominant Filipino social classes and powerful elites. Hence the state failings in the arena of democratic, egalitar- ian social service delivery and governance seem intrinsically related to the political economy of conflict in Mindanao. According to the 2006 official poverty statistics more than half Muslim households are classified as poor and poverty in the region reached 55.3 percent in 2006, a 9.9 per- cent increase from 2003’s 45.4 percent (4).
The revivalist responses amongst the Muslim tribes for which socio-economic inequalities faced by Min- danao have played a significant role, were transformed first from the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Over time, Muslim resistance has splintered with some groups demanding autonomy and others calling for independence. For example, peace negotiations and a policy of accommodation on part of the central government over the years resulted in a progressive dilution of the MNLF’s stand and culminated in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement which created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Min danao (ARMM) composed of 13 provinces as a democratic palliative for Muslim aspirations. Later the Jakarta Peace Agreement of 1996 launched a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process for the integration of the MNLF cadre into the mainstream of Philippine polity and civilian life was expected to bring about a marked deescalation in tensions. This agreement however gave impetus to a renewal of separatist aims of the Muslims under the banner of a rival Maguindanao based group the MILF with an estimated strength of 8,000 to 11,000 combatants. The only groups that could be classified as ji- hadist, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Raja So- laiman Movement (RSM), were offshoots of these separatist groups. Many Muslims view the Philippine conflict as a legitimate jihad, but inside the country jihad largely serves to create a common Moro-Muslim identity. Finally, inter-group conflict is reinforced by intra tribal rido (blood feud) which draw on such traditional concepts as marabat (honour), which also define relations between the various Islamic and non -Islamic tribes. These clan feuds tend to perpetuate a cycle of vengeance and retaliation with frequent civilian killings, political rivalry, land disputes and crimes like theft, non-payments of debts, elopement. This source of conflict perpetuation and escalation is disruptive for civilians since with the ini- tiation of a rido conflict, the members of the kin group or the community are often immobilized, on account of them being potential targets for retaliation.
“It was clear that the conflict has created a strong a ‘warlordism’ culture in many parts of the island. Every small settlement seems to have become a fiefdom of a particular clan or powerful family, and the use of violence and corruption for political power is a common practice.”
For a British Academy funded field research on the role of family and community in the recruitment of youth in conflict I was in Mindanao between 9 and 27 June 2010 (5). Working with Sukanya Podder, one of my doctoral students and a team of local researchers, we conducted a questionnaire survey with over 400 households in four different provinces of Mindanao (North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte) in order to carry out a spatial disaggregation and look at the youth participation in the MILF from different clans and tribes. It was during this field research that we observed once again, the difficulties surrounding the possibility of a peaceful conflict resolution in Mindanao. It was clear that the conflict has created a strong a ‘warlordism’ culture in many parts of the island. Every small settlement seems to have become a fiefdom of a particular clan or powerful family, and the use of violence and corruption for political power is a common practice. Once such a political power has been achieved, then the exploitation of office for personal benefits and cronyism is exercised by many local politicians, which perpetuates the complex political problems of the island further. There is a high level suspicion among ordinary people towards not only the politicians at the national level but also their very own local representatives.
In other words, bringing peace to Min- danao through a political settlement would need To address a set of widespread and entrenched problems with bad governance and socio-political insecurities.
“As a first -100-day-in-office commitment by the President Aquino, it is hoped that over 25,000 internally displaced persons will be able to return their homesand livelihoods, but more significantly, whether or not there will be a peaceful political solution to the conflict is yet to be seen!”
The current peace talks which are hosted by Malaysia have a history of 10 years and since 2004 it has been assisted by an international monitoring team. Recently, both the European Union and Norway have also joined the monitoring team, bringing further impetus and hopes for a peace deal in the near future. A new chief negotiator for the government has just been appointed and as a law professor it is expected that his expertise will enable a constructive engagement on a number of contentious issues such as indigenous people’s rights, ancestral homeland and access to environmental resources. As a first -100-day-in-office commitment by the President Aquino, it is hoped that over 25,000 internally displaced persons will be able to return their homes and livelihoods, but more significantly, whether or not there will be a peaceful political solution to the conflict is yet to be seen!
* Alpaslan Özerdem is Professor of Peace-building at Coventry University.
1) Jamial A. Kamlian, Bangsamoro Society and Culture: A Book of Readings on Peace and Development in Southern Philippines (Iligan City: Iligan Center for Peace Education and Research, MSU-IIT Press 1999) pp.7 -9; Sam- uel K. Tan, Internationalization of the Bang- samoro Struggle (Quezon City: The University of Philippines Centre for Integrative and Development Struggle, Philippines 1995); The Bangsamoro people include the Badjao, Sangil, Palawani, Iranun, Kalagan, Tausug, Jama-Mapun, Samal, Kaligbugan, Yakan, Molbog and the more well known Maguin- danao and Maranao.
2) Jubair, 1999 cited in Eddie L. Quitoriano and Francisco M. Theofelize, Their War, Our Struggle: Stories of Children in Central Mindanao (Quezon City: Save The Children, UK 2004) p.12.
3) Astrid S. Tuminez, Ancestral Domain in Com- parative Perspective USIP Special Report. 151/ September (Washington D.C.: USIP 2005); Dennis S. Erasga, ‘Ancestral Domain Claim: The Case of the Indigenous People in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)’ Asia-Pacific Social Science Review 8/ 1 (2008) pp: 33 -44.
4) See the latest poverty statistics of the Philippines at their official website: www.nscbp.ph/ poverty
5) The field research benefited from the cooperation of a number of local NGOs such as Mindanao Tulong Bakwet, Birthdev, KI Volunteers, MTB Incorporated and RiskAsia without which undertaking field research in an environment like Mindanao would have been impossible.