Peace in the Philippines, but what next for the MILF?

The peace agreement between the MILF insurgency and the Philippines government is a significant achievement, but challenges do lie ahead for all parties. EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo

Late last month, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgency and the Philippines government signed a landmark peace settlement, signalling the end of a decades-old conflict. After 17 years of on-and-off negotiations, the two parties finally signed a settlement based on the Framework Agreement developed in 2012.

The new “Bangsamoro” autonomous region will replace the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The ARMM was originally established in accordance with the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, signed between the government and the MILF’s rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

While the agreement is a significant political achievement for Philippines president Benigno Aquino as it essentially marks the end of combat between the insurgency and government forces, a challenging road lies ahead in achieving overall peace in the Philippines.

Background to the MILF

The MILF was officially established in 1984 by Salamat Hashim. A former leader within the MNLF who became disenchanted with the decision to sign the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, Salamat split from the MNLF and advocated more radical action in establishing an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

The MILF’s initial hostility towards the Philippines government commenced when the MNLF accepted the offer of semi-autonomy in 1987. Although a general cessation of hostilities between the MILF and the government was signed in 1997, it was abolished under president Joseph Estrada in 2000. The MILF then declared “jihad” against the government.

While the MILF is primarily an insurgency, it has been alleged that they have engaged in terrorist tactics, such as the 2003 Davao City bombings. The organisation is also alleged to have had ties to both the Abu Sayyaf Group (the ASG) and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah. These links have been consistently denied by the MILF.

The other challenges to peace

While the Philippines government has re-opened the door for negotiations with the country’s communist insurgency in the north, within Mindanao there are other actors that can obstruct the successful implementation of the peace plan.

Unsurprisingly, Nur Misuari, the founder and former leader of the MNLF, has been unsupportive of the peace process. Based on arguments that are partly political and partly personal, he has expressed discontent with the fact that the MNLF has been sidelined in the deal.

Misuari has already been accused of playing a role in two recent incidents that were allegedly intended to hamper the negotiations. The first was a strange attempt by the “Sultan of Sulu”, Jamalul Kiram III, to reclaim land in Borneo in February 2013. Later, in September, Misuari is alleged to have facilitated a three-week stand-off in which 200 individuals were taken hostage in Zamboanga City in Mindanao.

Misuari has been in hiding since the Zamboanga incident. Although MNLF chairman Abul Khayr Alonto is supportive of the peace process, Misuari retains a loyal group of supporters.

Also, the government still needs to contend with the ASG and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Although these groups are notably smaller than both the MILF and MNLF, they are significantly more radical and ruthless.

The BIFF broke away from the MILF in disagreement with the peace talks in 2008, and has been accused of carrying out various attacks, including an attack on the military HQ in Maguindanao in February.

Meanwhile, the notorious ASG is listed as a terrorist organisation by many western countries (including Australia). It is considered the most violent Islamist group in the southern Philippines due to its tactics of taking hostages and occasionally beheading them.

The MILF has vowed to turn in the weapons of between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters. EPA/STR

The MILF’s disarmament

As part of the MILF’s disarmament, the insurgency has vowed to turn in the weapons of between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters. The Annex of Normalisation within the Framework Agreement stipulates that the MILF will undergo a graduated program of decommissioning, with a third party overseeing this process related to both weapons and MILF forces.

A concern is that it is unclear how much arsenal the MILF holds. Its “forces” not only include MILF combatants, but also private armies that operate within the region.

With claims there are already defections from the MILF to the MNLF, the disengagement and reintegration of former combatants will be the next challenge. This is particularly the case as many of these combatants have been fighting since the insurgency’s inception.

For success in the long term, measures must be implemented to assist combatants in returning to civilian life – including employment. A challenge also seen within many other conflict environments is that often these individuals lack marketable skills or experience of seeking work. Given the organisations still active in Mindanao, there is no lack of opportunities for the fighters to redirect their combatant experience elsewhere.

It is positive that a final peace arrangement has been signed and the importance of a Bangsamoro political entity has been recognised. But the same steely determination on behalf of both the MILF and Philippines government needs to be maintained to bring stability to the troubled region.

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