Zamboanga City is one of the most intriguing places in the southern Philippines, where the country's colonial past, heard on the streets as locals converse in Spanish creole, collides with its modern day security problems, seen in the sprawling bulk of a military base.
Government negotiators for peace talks with the largest, best organised Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), paid a visit this week, according to an official Twitter account. The timing of the trip is interesting. On 8 December, the government team signed with its MILF counterparts the third of four annexes that will complete a comprehensive peace agreement for Muslim-majority areas of the southern Philippines.
This most recent annex describes how the Bangsamoro, the new autonomous region that will be set up before President Benigno Aquino III leaves office in 2016, will share power with Manila. One major issue the negotiators were unable to resolve was the Bangsamoro's waters.
According to a reliable journalist, the MILF and the government have been unable to agree how far the Bangsamoro's territory will extend from the shoreline into the Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea. The issue was also a sticking point in the talks that led to an aborted pact in 2008. Whatever is agreed at the negotiating table, neither Manila nor the new Bangsamoro government will exert real control over these lawless waters (as South China Sea watchers know, the Philippine state is ill-equipped to defend its maritime boundaries).
For anyone navigating the Sulu archipelago and the porous border zone, known as the country's 'backdoor' for licit or illicit business, Zamboanga City serves as a useful staging ground.
Warlord politicians from the islands can often be seen deep in conversation with each other and senior military officials in the lobby of the city's best-known hotel. Human traffickers, smugglers, gun-runners and terrorists are known to pass through as well. On my first visit I was told Zamboanga City was where the violent extremists of the Abu Sayyaf Group, based in the Sulu archipelago, come for their R&R (when they are not negotiating ransoms for the release of tourists kidnapped from Sabah and unlucky journalists seeking interviews with the group's shadowy leadership).
In September, Zamboanga City itself became a war zone. Followers of Nur Misuari, a rival leader within the fractious world of Bangsamoro politics whose credibility rests on founding the original Muslim insurgent movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), sailed from the Sulu archipelago to Zamboanga City, allegedly for peaceful purposes. They clashed with the Philippine military in the streets for weeks, razing whole neighbourhoods and displacing over 100,000 people.
The mercurial Misuari has always been a thorn in the MILF's side, despite last week's efforts by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which negotiated an earlier peace agreement with the MNLF, to mollify him. The September violence raised questions about how dissenting voices within the diverse Bangsamoro nation could be accommodated within a MILF-brokered political settlement. As others have written, the fighting appeared to be a pivotal moment.
Zamboanga City got caught in the crosswinds of peace process politics, with tragic consequences. But its ability to embrace the many contradictions of the southern Philippines -- in its dual economy and its palpable vibrancy undercut by the potential for sudden violence – is why it will benefit if the peace process succeeds. Over time (likely decades), security should improve and in tandem, the economy will develop. Zamboanga City's importance as a hub will only grow.
Despite serving as a transportation, administrative and political hub that connects the two Muslim-majority areas of Central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, Zamboanga City is mainly Christian, with a small Muslim community, and will almost certainly lie outside the new region. Yet this week's visit to the city by government negotiators was a good sign. They need to persuade Zamboangueños that they will be better off in the long run if the Bangsamoro is created.
Map courtesy of the Government of the Philippines.