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Philippines: Framework agreement on Bangsamoro

The following article in the November-December 2012 NewsNotes is contributed by Fred Goddard, who recently moved to the Philippines after stepping down from his role as executive coordinator of the Maryknoll Affiliates.

On October 15, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed an historic agreement that all hope will end decades of armed conflict in the southern Philippines. The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) will ultimately lead to the creation of a new autonomous political entity, the Bangsamoro (Bangsa is a word that means "nation," thus the term means "Moro Nation.")

In his speech at the signing, MILF chairman Al Haj Murad gave a brief history of the struggle of the Muslim people of the southern Philippines, which goes back to "five centuries of foreign invasions and domination…" Prior to the colonization by the Spanish, Dutch and other European powers of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, much of what is now the southern Philippines was part of the Moro sultanates. These sultanates were lost and the Moro people marginalized when much of their territory was expropriated first by the Spanish and then later by the United States and the emergence of the Philippines as a nation state.

Al Haj Murad went on to say, "This unjust condition that sustained this conflict in our generation made it inevitable for the Moro Liberation movements [Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and subsequently the MILF] to emerge." Peace negotiations did take place in 1976 in Libya under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and in 1996 in Indonesia between the MNLF and the Philippine government. These negotiations, as well as the forming of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), were seen as "failed experiments." Thus, armed conflict and the government’s response of counter-insurgency, often with the assistance of the United States, dominated the scene of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago for decades. Al Haj Murad lamented that this conflict "has invariably taken a heavy toll on the lives, properties, and livelihoods of our people—Moro-indigenous communities and settlers in Mindanao and Sulu."

So what makes this agreement any different than those that preceded it? As Philippines President Benigno Simeon Aquino III said, the FAB "symbolizes and honors the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao, and celebrates the history and character of that part of our nation." In his speech during the signing, Al Haj Murad said the Framework Agreement is the "most important document in the chapter of our history—a landmark document that restores to our people their Bangsamoro identity and their homeland, their right to govern themselves and the power to forge their destiny and future with their very hands." The foundation of the document was based on years of negotiations and on the recognition of a common struggle for peace and justice for the Muslim people of Mindanao and all Filipinos.

The FAB is not the end agreement but rather an "outline" or a major step on the path to peace. The Framework includes the establishment of the Bangsamoro; formulation of basic law and powers; determination of revenue generation and wealth sharing and territory; and the basic rights of all people within the territory, Muslim, indigenous and all others living there. The FAB also outlines the transition and implementation, as well as the "normalization." This last term, while seeming to be one of the most understated, is probably the most important. As written in the Framework, "The aim of normalization is to ensure human security in the Bangsamoro" (2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, p. 11). This includes the decommissioning and disarming of the MILF.

The FAB states, "The government of the Bangsamoro shall have a ministerial form" (p. 1). At the same time, "The Bangsamoro shall have competence over the Shari’ah justice system. The supremacy of Shari’ah and its application shall only be to Muslims" (p. 3). These Shari’ah courts will try personal, non-criminal cases between Muslims. "Consistent with the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the Bangsamoro will have the power to create its own sources of revenues and to levy taxes, fees, and charges, subject to limitations as may be mutually agreed upon by the Parties."

While these are important structures and powers for the Bangsamoro, the central government shall retain the powers of defense and external security, foreign policy, common market and global trade, coinage and monetary policy, citizenship and naturalization.

To see this all through, the Framework Agreement calls for the creation of a Transition Commission (TransCom) whose functions are "[to] work on the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law; [to] work on proposals to amend the Philippine Constitution for the purpose of accommodating and entrenching in the constitution the agreements of the Parties… and [to] coordinate whenever necessary development programs in Bangsamoro communities" (p.9).

Given that the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is just that, a framework or outline, there is much to be done and many obstacles to overcome. Including the signing of the Agreement itself, there are 15 stages to the creation of the Bangsamoro, ending with the formation of the Bangsamoro legislative assembly, all of which is hoped to be achieved before the end of the term of President Aquino in 2016—a very ambitious timeline.

Of these stages, some will be greater challenges than others. The Transition Commission, itself, requires not only an Executive Order, but also a supporting resolution of the Congress. There is no doubt that President Aquino will promulgate the Executive Order, but some in Congress could delay or even attempt to block the resolution. President Aquino’s cabinet, members of his staff and allies have already been encouraging Congress to pass the resolution. At a speech during a briefing, the government’s chief negotiator, Marvic Leonen, urged the members of Congress to "support this particular framework agreement," stating that that it is considered to be "constitutional already, that does not contain independence, that is democratic and inclusive. I beg you to support this particular framework agreement."

The Transition Commission has to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law Bill for submission to Congress. This bill must be enacted into law and approved by the president and then must be ratified in a plebiscite. Most analysts are optimistic about each of these stages, but politics being politics, no matter what country, and changes in the reality on the ground mean there are no guarantees.

In addition to working through these specific steps in the process of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, there is the existing situation of southern Mindanao. Many within the MILF may be hesitant to give up their arms when the power of the gun has been the way of life for so many individuals for so long. More seriously, the MNLF has expressed criticism of the Agreement, at times through very belligerent language. The long-time leader of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, has been particularly vitriolic in speeches and interviews, even making exaggerated claims that thousands of members of the MILF have defected to the MNLF. At the farthest extreme are those who claim to be affiliates with Al Qaeda, such as the Abu Sayaf. While very diminished in strength, they still threaten the peaceful resolution to conflicts in Mindanao.

Mindanao, like much of the Philippines, is also plagued with corruption, especially tied to those with economic power. "War lords," who often hold political offices as mayors and governors, control large areas and the natural resources that are so abundant and in demand in Mindanao. They have not given up their power to the central government and are unlikely to do so to a duly elected Bangsamoro government. It is hard to imagine a new layer of laws in Mindanao when the existing ones have done little to curb this corruption. Even the Ampatuan massacre of 11 members of the Mangudadatu family and their associates -- 34 journalists and five others -- languishes in the courts after almost three years.

Despite these obstacles, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro remains a hopeful sign in the Philippines. As His Excellency Dato’ Sri Mohammad Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, whose country played a key role in the peace negotiations, said, "This is not an endpoint, but a beginning. There is much still to be done. The Framework Agreement is a historic document but it does not solve all the problems. Rather, it sets the parameters in which a lasting peace may be found."

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, speeches made during the signing and other information can be found here.