A vital but often overlooked question about the peace process in the southern Philippines is whether the three provinces of the Sulu archipelago – Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – will opt to join the new autonomous region known as the Bangsamoro. The peace will be more sustainable if they do, but it may require some carrots and sticks from Manila to persuade traditional politicians in the area to go along.
The Sulu Archipelago and the Philippine Peace Process, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), examines the factors behind the reluctance of the ruling elites in the islands to join a region that will be dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from central Mindanao. It looks at why the archipelago’s participation is crucial to a lasting peace, and what the Aquino government needs to do to ensure it votes “yes” in a forthcoming plebiscite that will determine the Bangsamoro’s boundaries.
For months, the question has been whether there would be a peace at all, after a botched counter-terrorism operation in January 2015 led to a firefight in which mostly MILF combatants killed 44 members of a police special forces unit. Seventeen MILF fighters and five civilians also died. Public outrage threatened to torpedo the passage by the Philippines Congress of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which will enshrine in domestic law the peace agreements worked out over nearly two decades by the government and the MILF.
“Now that it looks like the BBL will pass, the question is how to make the Bangsamoro better, stronger and cleaner than the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM),” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “The islands have to be included for the Bangsamoro to work.”
Traditional politicians in the archipelago are unenthusiastic about the Bangsamoro for several reasons. One is ethnicity: they are mostly ethnic Tausug as well as Yakan and Sama, while the MILF that will lead the transition government in the region is largely Maguindanao and Maranao. Another is power: the ruling families of the islands in recent years have cut deals with Manila directly, rather than have that relationship mediated by a regional structure. A third is strong local support for an MILF rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which had its own peace agreement with the Philippines government and whose leaders feel sidelined by the Aquino government.
The peace agreements will produce a parliamentary system of regional government that holds out the promise of more representation for the islands and a greater share of locally-generated revenue. The bigger budget could be used to improve social service delivery and economic development for what is now the poorest area of the country. If the Sulu archipelago opts out of the region, however, the Bangsamoro will be smaller than ARMM, and MILF fighters will wonder whether the compromises with the government were worth the effort.
Whether or not the islands join may depend on one man, Sakur Tan, who controls Sulu province. The MILF and the government need to figure out how to bring him on board, but doing so while maintaining the promise of better governance may not be easy.
“President Aquino, the MILF and civil society in Mindanao need to make a concerted effort to convince voters in the Sulu archipelago that the Bangsamoro will indeed be inclusive, responsive and above all, effective,” says Jones.