Duterte’s offer of a Bangsamoro government: Shaping his legacy

With Marawi in crisis, Duterte turns to self-rule for Muslims to bring extremism under control. It might be the best chance he has of tackling radical extremism.

By Oliver Ward

In a bold move to combat the most severe threat to his country, Duterte revived the legislation to provide self-rule to the Muslim population of Mindanao. If he can get the bill through Congress, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) bill will represent a milestone achievement, bringing together the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after a two-decade peace process.

The BBL bill will give Muslim- majority areas of the southern island of Mindanao, legislative and fiscal autonomy. It will give the region an elected legislative assembly, complete with a cabinet and chief minister. The newly formed Bangsamoro government and the national government will share the revenue from the region’s natural resources, however, the Bangsamoro government will receive the bulk of the profits. If the bill passes through Congress, elections for the 80-seat assembly will likely take place in 2022.

Duterte hopes the bill will stop the spread of violent extremism across the region

“This moment is a significant step forward in our quest to end centuries of hatred, mistrust and injustice that cost and affected the lives of millions of Filipinos”, he said.

The bill comes at a critical juncture for Duterte. Militants with ties to the Islamic State have occupied Marawi City for the last seven weeks. More than 260,000 Filipinos have been displaced and more than 500 people have been killed, including 45 civilians. By negotiating a deal for self-rule with the MILF, Duterte hopes to make a powerful ally to help with the fight against radical extremism.

Will the bill get through Congress?

The bill has already been approved by a panel of government representatives, but before the bill can come into effect, it needs to go through Congress. Despite the House Speaker’s hopes that the House of Representatives will pass the bill “before Christmas”, this could take some time.

The last time the prospect of Muslim self-rule was debated in Congress, the bill failed after fighting broke out between the MILF and government forces in Mamasapano. There were upcoming elections in 2015 and the idea of giving autonomous rule to a group involved in violence against the government would have seriously damaged government reputation.

However, this time there are signs of progress. The MILF have expressed a real interest in finding a peace arrangement and have even begun decommissioning soldiers and weapons. They have also been involved in humanitarian work in Marawi, rescuing trapped citizens. There are real signs that the group is ready to move forward.

But, even if Congress pass the bill, the process will be lengthy. Congress will likely then decide if any part of the bill goes against the Filipino Constitution. If it does, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez suggested forming a constitutional commission which could draft a revised constitution. Congress would then have to pass this before the Bangsamoro legislative assembly could be created.

Will the BBL bill help stamp out extremism?

In 1996, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a rival faction to the MILF, signed a bill giving parts of Mindanao self-rule. But in the years since, violence, conflict, and extremism have still plagued the island. Is there any indication that this time will be different?

Firstly, this time both the MNLF and the MILF had a hand in drawing up the BBL bill. So, the new agreement is the first which has been approved by both parties.

Secondly, the MILF are incredibly influential in Mindanao. Duterte hopes that the BBL bill will guarantee the support of the MILF, which will be key for curbing radical extremism. The MILF carry significant weight in Mindanao. A Social Weather Stations Survey revealed that the MILF is the most trusted faction among Filipino Muslims. The MILF scored a net trust rating of +74, compared to the MNLF’s score of +50.

If the MILF are seen to be collaborating with the government, this will encourage other Muslims to turn against extremism. The MILF have already committed to implementing a fatwa against those involved in radical extremism, suggesting Duterte’s plan is already working.

A Bangsamoro Government will offer legitimate channels to raise concerns

The installation of an autonomous Bangsamoro Government will give the impoverished Muslim minority population a legitimate channel to raise concerns. They will have representation in government a voice. This will curb the recruitment for terrorist organisations, which until now, have relied on violence and conflict to make their voices heard.

The decision to allow the region to keep the bulk of its natural resource revenues is also a valuable weapon against extremism. With more of the revenues remaining in Mindanao, the region will enjoy more wealth and economic prosperity. Currently, a marginalised and impoverished population fuels terrorism and extremism.  Once the population is lifted from poverty, frustration and resentment against the government is reduced and extremism cannot flourish so easily.

Duterte’s decision to allocate P20 billion (US$400 million) to the reconstruction of Marawi City is also a significant step forward. “I will rebuild Marawi, because if not, I will remain forever a villain”, he said.

It is not so much that he will be remembered as a “villain”. It is far more likely that by leaving Marawi behind, he would be leaving conditions under which extremism could spread and flourish.

The process will be long and time consuming. There is no quick fix for the spread of radical extremism. Duterte has pledged to fast track the bill through Congress, but there is no guarantee his efforts will be successful. Even if the benefits will not be felt immediately, or even before Duterte’s re-election, the BBL bill represents an opportunity for Duterte to leave a legacy as a leader who set the country on the path to bringing extremism under control. He has his work cut out for him, but he owes it to future generations of Filipinos to commit to his promise and push for the creation of a Bangsamoro government.