By signing a peace deal with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippine government has taken a large step toward neutralizing one of the country’s most resilient rebel insurgencies—but it has hardly stabilized the country entirely. On March 27, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Murad Ibrahim witnessed their lead negotiators ink the agreement, as did Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose country helped broker the negotiations over the past decade.
And yet uncertainty remains. The country still faces the challenge of legalizing and then sustaining the deal, maintaining relative security in the region, developing the economy of the to-be-created Bangsamoro administrative region and pacifying the country’s remaining insurgents and criminal groups.
The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of thousands of islands, dense populations, extreme poverty and extensive ethnic and religious diversity. As such, it has engendered political fragmentation and has supported rebel insurgencies of various types. Today, Islamists, communists, separatists and criminal gangs continue to wreak havoc on certain parts of the country, especially its southern and eastern extremities. Peace deals with individual rebel groups have come and gone without eliminating the broader rebel phenomenon. Yet international jihad and other forms of ideological militancy have been degraded in recent years and have often given way to protection rackets and banditry.
Over the years, Manila has managed gradually to overcome political-military divisions in order to weaken and fracture militant groups, making them more isolated and manageable. To divide the groups, the government put selective pressure on the more radical elements, provoking them and responding forcefully to their attacks—a strategy that tends to widen divisions between extreme and centrist factions and create opportunities for peace negotiations with those inclined to compromise.
This is what Manila achieved with its flawed but serviceable peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front that signed the deal today began as a breakaway group from the MNLF. A similar pattern of fracturing occurred when Philippine and US counterterrorism forces broke apart Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf in the years after 9/11. Stratfor has long held that this strategy would work with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and eventually lead to a peace agreement.
The new deal replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, comprising the southwest of Mindanao and nearby islands, with a new administrative region called the Bangsamoro. In doing so, it provides the Moro Islamic Liberation Front with the political autonomy it has long demanded, even at the expense of some elements of the Moro National Liberation Front that were previously content with their influence over the old region. By giving the region autonomy, tax authority and other powers, Manila hopes to replace the decaying peace settlements of the past and encourage a large portion of the remaining militants to buy into the legitimate political system, thereby cutting off some critical insurgents and gaining a greater ability to manage the region through politics.
However, the agreement did not come easy. The negotiations began in 2003 with a cease-fire, lapsed into renewed violence many times, and collapsed in 2008, leading to the formation of a new, more militant pro-independence group known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Only gradually did the two parties forge the framework deal in 2012 that led to today’s settlement. Last year, the extreme fringe of the Moro Nationals, feeling excluded as the government courted its Moro rivals, attempted to derail the peace negotiations by laying siege to Zamboanga City, resulting in intense fighting with the Philippine armed forces. The clashes ended with the armed forces on top and the peace negotiations intact. The armed forces have since made additional headway against the various disaffected rebels in the region.
In light of the peace deal, there is a heightened risk of rebel attacks in the coming months as various groups try to show that they still must be reckoned with. It will be important to see what kind of capabilities they have, who they target, whether they seek to punish Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders for selling out, aim at political, military or civilian targets, or merely attempt to set up protection rackets. A critical question for the security environment is whether MILF leaders who have agreed to lay down their arms will have a deep enough interest in the system, primarily through control of revenues, to work with central authorities to undermine the militant remnants. Otherwise, they may attempt to retain the militant wing as a lever to use against the government, which would represent a dangerous weakness in the new deal.
Beyond the imminent security risks, the government must try to ensure that long-term security is conducive to economic development of the region. Breakaway groups will remain a potent threat and a challenge to police forces, stability and development. Integrating disarmed militants can involve a long and fraught process. Ultimately, Manila has to make economic development a reality, which requires attracting extensive investment into a poverty-stricken and still insecure region. For Manila, it is essential to tap the resource base in this region, but foreign investment is necessary, and Japanese, Malaysian and other investors cannot be wooed easily without verifiable security progress. The region has a long way to go.
Even if the peace deal endures, dividing militants and initiating a more promising cycle of investment and growth, the Philippines will not yet have consolidated power to the point of gaining institutional capacity to address international concerns more effectively.
In addition to the ethnic Moro groups, there is also the communist New People’s Army and a broader climate of corruption and violence. Only in the event of consistent improvements in security and economic development across the country will the Philippines gain a greater ability to look outward.
In the meantime, Manila will continue to look to the US alliance as its bulwark against a range of regional challenges, such as China’s growing maritime assertiveness.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary article is with the express permission of STRATFOR.