Can Aquino's Mindanao Peace Deal Hold?

As leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front jetted into Manila for the signing Monday of the initial peace agreement between the Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino III, they had to know that they were taking a chance that could cost them. While the agreement was described as historic, it was not unprecedented. And in the previous attempts lie the seeds of potential trouble.

Previous agreements have been wrecked by a Congress dominated by landlords and big business who saw any political accommodation of the Moro people as a threat to their continued reign in Mindanao.The Philippines is 81 percent Catholic, with Christians slowly intruding into what was one a largely Muslim island, a long-simmering issue The failure of the past agreements has led to the marginalization of at least one Mindanao leader who tried to put it together and badly weakened his organizaion.

MILF leaders headed by chief Murad Ebrahim arrived to sign the framework agreement, as it is called, in a ceremony attended by Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, whose country helped to broker the deal.

The agreement calls for the establishment of a new autonomous region on Mindanao, to be called the Bangsamoro, or Muslim Nation, by 2016 and hopefully to end 40 years of bloodshed that have taken an estimated 150,000 lives and stunted the economic growth of the region.

Both Ebrahim and independent analysts and others have warned that Monday's signing does not guarantee an end to the conflict although the MILF’s 12,000 guerrilla fighters are supposed to disarm by 2016.

Ebrahim’s deputy, Ghazali Jaafar, stressed that “this is just the beginning of the peace journey." Despite the fact that Aquino said it involves a broader swathe of the Muslim south, for instance it leaves open the question what to do about the Abu Sayyaf, the murderous Islamic sect with alleged connections with Al Qaeda that has been responsible for numerous kidnappings and killings in the south.

Precedent leaves room for caution. In the four decades of internecine war in most parts of southern and western Mindanao, two peace agreements were reached and another almost got underway. These agreements, the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Jakarta Peace Accords, were between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Marcos regime and the MNLF and the Ramos government respectively. The botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain would have been the third of this kind, but the first involving the MILF.

Past Philippine presidents always regarded the MILF as a breakaway group from the MNLF that could easily be dealt with militarily, until the total capitulation of MNLF leader Nur Misuari in 1976 in the Tripoli Agreement, which was signed in Libya with deposed strongman Muammar Qaddafi as its principal broker and backer.

Many field commanders and senior leaders of the MNLF saw the accord as a ruse and a trap. The late Salamat Hashim wasted no time in seceding from the MNLF to form the MILF and pursued a more radical solution to the centuries-old conflict.

Salamat would later be vindicated as the Marcos regime made a sham of the Tripoli Agreement, prompting Misuari to resume fighting against the government. However, by the time Misuari realized he had fallen into the trap laid out by the later-deposed dictator, the MILF had already made significant headway in recruiting disgruntled senior commanders and young ideological Muslim scholars, cutting into the MNLF’s influence.

In 1996, Misuari finally settled for the Jakarta Peace Accord for which the MNLF was promised greater autonomy. But like the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the Jakarta Peace Accord was never meant to give the Bangsamoro the right to full self-determination. The promise of genuine autonomy was reduced to the granting of ministerial powers that only went to the traditional adversaries of the Moro rebels, the Moro warlords and politicians. Most of these warlords are still in place.

Misuari, after serving a term as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, would eventually lose his pre-eminent role in the Bangsamoro struggle.

President Fidel Ramos also tried to reach out to the MILF by initiating peace negotiations with the Moro rebel group that had already surpassed the armed strength of the MNLF with whom he signed a peace agreement. But Ramos ran out of time before the end of his six-year term.

Ramos’s successor, former President Joseph Estrada, instead of pursuing peace chose a path of destruction by ordering an all-out war with the 12,000 fighters of the MILF. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who succeeded him, did the same only to cave in to pressures for a negotiated political settlement with the MILF.

In 2008, the Arroyo government and the MILF were close to signing the memorandum of understanding on the autonomous district. But it came at a time when President Arroyo’s credibility ratings were at their lowest and suspicions that she was using the peace pact as a medium to amend the Constitution and perpetuate herself in power only reinforced the position of the anti-Moro block in Congress as well as local government officials.

The well-intentioned agreement did not even get past the Supreme Court where its opponents sought legal relief. It was declared unconstitutional and its defeat immediately plunged parts of predominant Muslim Mindanao, with a population between 4 million and 9 million, to the brink of civil war.

The botched agreement signing also drove a wedge inside the MILF with senior MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato forming his own Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF).

The MILF has come full circle. On Monday, it agreed to the framework agreement for Bangsamoro. Far from being a peace deal, however, the initial agreement is largely a broad stroke document where the MILF practically leaves the future of its struggle for self-determination in the hands of Congress although the creation of Bangsamoro to replace ARMM is already a moral victory for the MILF as the word literally means “Moro nation.”

The organic act that would create the new autonomous political entity to embody the aspirations of the Moro people, unfortunately, is within the realm of political reality where their previous leaders have failed before.

How the present MILF leadership will be able to reverse the history of capitulation, surrender and betrayal that led to the failures of their past struggles is a task Chairman Murad Ebrahim and the rest of the central committee members cannot afford to fail.

The autonomous agreement is just the first step to a long journey for peace in Mindanao. Ending the war is way easier than achieving a just and lasting peace. Now the hardest part of the quest for peace begins.

(With reporting by Edwin Espejo, who blogs for Asian Correspondent)