Historic Peace Agreement in Philippines

The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Thursday is a major triumph for President Benigno S. Aquino III, a landmark accord that hopefully will put an end to one of the longest-running armed conflicts in Southeast Asia.

"I will not let peace be snatched from my people again. Not now when we have already undertaken the most significant steps to achieve it," Aquino said at the signing ceremony.

The agreement must still be ratified by the Philippine Congress. Senate President Franklin Drilon issued a public statement vowing to make sure that the measure, which he said would hopefully be passed by the end of the year, would withstand judicial scrutiny. With strong political backing in the Congress following 2012 elections, Aquino is expected to win ratification.

Along with the historic passage of the country’s first-ever birth control measure over the last-ditch objections of the Catholic Church – still pending before the country’s Supreme Court – the signing of what is called the Bangsamoro Agreement represents one of Aquino’s major triumphs.

Aquino’s administration has also gone a long way towards cleaning up the corruption ridden government contracting process as well as the election commission and engineered the impeachment of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Appointments, while leaving a good deal to be desired in some areas, are regarded as honest, especially for Ombudsman, Justice Secretary, Auditor and Corona’s replacement.

While the pace has been slow and the country has been dogged by natural disasters and a massive scandal over legislative discretionary funds known as the “Pork Barrel,” GDP growth has been healthy, gross international reserves are at an all-time high and its business outsource processing industry has topped India’s to become the world’s no. 1, all of which have earned the country the endearment of international investors and resulted in credit upgrades by Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s.

The Bangsamoro Framework Agreement follows 17 years of negotiations between the government and the MILF and decades of violence that have stunted the economic growth of the island of Mindanao and taken the lives of an estimated 120,000 people on both sides in a predominantly Catholic (88 percent) country with a Muslim (5 percent) population concentrated on the southern island. The insurrection by the MILF not only took the lives of those on both sides but went after infrastructure, crippling the economy. Power transmission towers and lines, bridges and road links were targeted. The rebels also targeted private vehicles and extorted from businessmen. It was estimated that as many as 750,000 people were displaced.

The Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Teresita Quintos Deles, said that the CAB “is going to be a major contribution for the peace and development of the entire country.” Aquino, MILF chief Murad Ebrahim and Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak also witnessed the signing. Malaysia has since 2001 served as a third-party facilitator to the talks.

There are a plethora of other Islamic separatist groups including the murderous Abu Sayyaf that don’t want the agreement to succeed, and indeed over the next few months sporadic violence is almost certain as the separatists seek to nullify it. The framework agreement involves the decommissioning rebel armed units, the redeployment of government security forces, the granting of amnesty to those who engaged in the decades-long armed struggle

Although there have been clashes between the MILF and the military, most of the violence has taken place against rival factions such as the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or local militias. The BIFF has repeatedly vowed to sabotage the peace process and continue the rebellion. However, with MILF’s consent, the military has mounted attacks on BIFF strongholds.

While the signing has been completed with a good deal of fanfare, that doesn’t mean the process is finished. An often-venal military and local law enforcement officials too often have had their own extortion rackets and been involved in unauthorized savagery. Deepening the trust between the two sides remains a work in progress. But the agreement has rightfully been greeted with considerable relief on both sides.