By Noelan Arbis
The Philippine government and Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on January 25 signed the fourth and final annex of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, first forged in October 2012, that will replace the existing five-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with a more powerful, better-funded, and potentially larger Bangsamoro region.
The agreement brings hope for peace and economic development to Mindanao after more than four decades of insurgency, which left more than 120,000 dead and millions displaced. The conflict areas in Mindanao have the country’s highest poverty levels at 38 percent, compared to the national average of 25 percent. A lasting peace could lead to more investment flows into the conflict-ridden region, which, despite its ideal geographic location in maritime Southeast Asia, contributed a mere 0.8 percent to the country’s 6.8 percent GDP growth in 2012. In addition, unlocking the potential of Mindanao’s rich mineral deposits, estimated to be worth approximately $300 billion, could deliver tremendous dividends to the fast-growing Philippine economy.
The recently signed Annex on Normalization, the last and most contentious of the annexes due to its provisions on security and transitional justice, deals with decommissioning the armed wing of the MILF and details steps to disarm private armies in the proposed Bangsamoro region. By outlining how the Philippine military and former rebel forces could collaborate to maintain peace in the region, the agreement is expected to significantly free up military commitments in the southern Philippines, allowing the central government to focus more resources on external security threats.
But the potential benefits of the peace agreement do come not without hurdles. The first crucial test facing the government is the peaceful implementation of the normalization annex, amid concerns that splinter groups not involved in negotiations such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) would seek to spoil the peace process by launching attacks. The Philippine military on January 27 launched a major offensive against the BIFF, killing at least 37 rebels and forcing more than 1,400 families to flee.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a rebel group which had previously signed a peace agreement with the government, has also objected to the newly formed framework on grounds that it abrogates their 1996 peace agreement. In order to satisfy both the MNLF and MILF factions, lawmakers will be tasked with consolidating the ARMM, which stemmed from the previous peace deal with the MNLF, with the newly proposed Bangsamoro zone.
Another important test concerns the passage and constitutionality of a bill that would serve as the legal basis for the establishment of the Bangsamoro government. Passing the bill will require approval by both houses of the Philippine Congress. While the House of Representatives has vowed to speed up its passage, members of the Senate have said they would be more scrutinizing. The bill could run the risk of being deemed unconstitutional if Congress decides that passing it would require an amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court in 2008 ruled against the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, a similar bill crafted between the MILF and the government of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Finally, the peace agreement could be a defining legacy for President Benigno Aquino. Past failed attempts at achieving peace by previous administrations have cast much doubt on Aquino’s recent efforts, but a careful implementation of the framework could ultimately bring long-awaited peace to Mindanao.