Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation's country representative in the Philippines and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations.
On Sunday, 7 October, Philippine President Benigno Simeon 'Noynoy' Aquino III, in a speech telecast nationwide, announced that a draft text for a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro had been finalised. He called for public comment and has made the document freely available before it is signed in a ceremony at the Presidential Palace which is scheduled for 15 October.
As one of those in the International Contact Group – a group of countries and international NGOs, including The Asia Foundation, tasked with supporting peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – I watched the speech live from the negotiation session in Kuala Lumpur. It was a very emotional time for all: we had finally reached 'the end of the beginning' to establish a new governing entity to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). After years of negotiations, decades of conflict, countless deaths and untold damage, a milestone had been reached.
In late 2006, the Lowy Institute published the report Mindanao: A Gamble Worth Taking, which provided a starting point for a talk I gave while in Sydney at the Lowy Institute on 9 October, where I examined the Framework Agreement and assessed the medium-term prospects for peace in Mindanao. During the discussion, an interesting dichotomy of views emerged: one of the attendees, familiar with the 2005 Aceh Peace Process, thought the timeframe in the Framework very long, while another (familiar with the Philippines) felt that the period envisioned was too short to get anything done.
The road map begins with further details to be worked out by the end of the year, particularly four annexes to the Framework Agreement: on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalisation and transition and implementation. A Transition Commission will be established, to be responsible for drafting a Bangsamoro Basic Law for approval by congress, followed by ratification in the Bangsomoro. The Commission will run the region (that is, those areas that opt to join) until elections scheduled in 2016. With Malaysian facilitation, the administration will have reached closure on this peace process before its term is finished.
How likely is this it that this lofty set of goals will be achieved? Clearly, initial signs are more hopeful than during the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) controversy in 2008 (when a tentative deal was struck down as unconstitutional). Prominent skeptics of earlier agreements are now on board with the administration: Manny Pinol wished the MILF good luck and Senator Franklin Drilon was behind President Aquino as he spoke on Sunday. Mar Roxas was in the room and the next day, in his capacity as Secretary of Interior and Local Government, he delivered a speech on the role of the police in the successful implementation of the agreement. There are, of course, those who are questioning the agreement, led by Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat and former President Joseph 'Erap' Estrada, but overwhelming opposition, like in 2008, has yet to occur.
Among other factions of the Muslim separatist movement, hardliner Umra Kato's Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement has opposed the agreement; in a recent video Kato called for an independent 'Bangsa Islam' (Islamic Nation). Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, from which the MILF split in the 1980s) founding Chairman Nur Misuari has called the Framework Agreement illegal since there is already a Final Peace Agreement that was reached between the government and the MNLF in 1996. Yet he is likely to be somewhat preoccupied with his candidacy in the May 2013 elections for governorship of the ARMM.
The political capital that President Aquino currently enjoys had led to an 'inclusive enough' coalition among political elites in support of the Framework Agreement. Whether it will bring peace and development as so eloquently outlined in PNoy's speech will depend on future hard work, good will and considerable luck.
Photo by Flickr user Keith Bacongco.