THE BLOG

Elusive Peace in Mindanao?

04/04/2014 10:28 BST | Updated 03/06/2014 10:59 BST

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Moro Islamic Liberation Front Peace Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal, Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato Abdul Ghafar, and Philippine Government Peace Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer present the signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) during ceremonies at Malacañan Palace. -- March 27, 2014. Credit: Malacañang Photo Bureau.

Good news of peace from the Philippines. After 17 years of negotiations, last Thursday the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a comprehensive peace agreement.

In a time of never-ending reporting on tension and violence around the globe, this is indeed a rare development. The agreement is even more significant given the religious framework of the Mindanao conflict. Rebels from the Muslim minority population took up arms in the late 1960s to protest land-grabbing, minoritisation and discrimination in a centralised and mainly Christian country.

After decades or confrontation, and one of the most protracted peace negotiations in the world, the Government and the MILF have signed a Comprehensive Agreement that will provide enhanced autonomy to the Bangsamoro (Muslim Nation). The Government has committed to the Muslims' request for parity of esteem and significant devolution, and the rebels have accepted the legal framework of the Philippines.

However, this is not the first time the Government has signed a major peace agreement with Muslim rebels. The MILF is actually a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed the so-called Final Peace Agreement back in 1996. This time a new splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, has committed to continued armed struggle to achieve an Islamic independent state.

Challenges: Security, governance, trust

Any peace process faces similar challenges. The peace agreement does not immediately trickle down to the situation on the ground and the expectations for rapid change created by the signing ceremonies are hardly ever met.

One of the biggest security challenges in Mindanao is the current legal framework that allows people to carry guns, leading to massive arms proliferation among civilians. In recent years, most violent incidents have been due to family feuds and disputes between local politicians, rather than confrontations between MILF and Armed Forces. The MILF is actually not requested to disarm, but essentially to register their weapons, which former combatants are legally allowed to carry.

The second major challenge is to promote structural change in a governance system that is weak, inefficient and controlled by a few families. This challenge is common to the rest of the country, and President Aquino has been leading on an ambitious reform agenda. But four years into his term it is clear that despite political will, change is a long-term process.

The situation is even more complicated in the Muslim provinces, which are the poorest in the country. The peace agreement envisions a more capable, inclusive and accountable governance system at the municipal and regional levels. But the time-frame for implementation is extremely short, as the agreed road map only runs until the end of the current President's term in mid-2016. The MILF is expected to turn into a political movement and eventually run for elections, but two years is clearly not enough time for a rebel movement to transform into a political party that can win elections and deliver the structural change society is demanding.

The third big challenge is to nurture trust across the multiple social, economic and political divides. Trust between the Muslims, the non-Muslim indigenous peoples and the Christian settlers in the new autonomous entity. Trust also among people inside these three groups of society that are far from homogeneous and more broadly, between the ordinary citizens and a government that has a poor record of delivery.

Foundations for change

Despite these three challenges, there is room for optimism. From the moment of the signing of the peace agreement, the Philippines Government and the MILF turned from being adversaries to becoming partners and, therefore, equally interested in a successful implementation process.

Both parties have learned the lessons from previous shortcomings and have carefully designed a transition process with multiple mechanisms for national and international oversight and support.

At the same time, both parties have a shared understanding of the importance for inclusivity and, therefore, rely heavily on commitment from other stakeholders, ranging from the business sector to civil society organisations.

The peace agreement is certainly not the end of the peace process. But it is a major milestone that will bring an immediate peace dividend by reducing uncertainty and restoring hope for a better future. Farmers will feel confident they'll be able to harvest and sell their crops and the business sector will have incentives to invest. Food and jobs will increase.

All social, political and economic stakeholders will have a role to play. With increased participation comes increased ownership and legitimacy and, eventually, a more sustainable peace process. Negotiations and disputes will continue for several years to come but the Bangsamoro and the Philippines will be better prepared than ever to solve differences by peaceful means.

Kristian is a member of the International Contact Group that has been witnessing and advising the peace Mindanao negotiations over the past four years.