Can Duterte call himself a Moro people’s president?

Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte made bringing peace to Mindanao a central issue on the campaign trail. Has he done enough to call himself a Moro people’s president?

By John Pennington

“If I become president, if Allah gives his blessing, before I die since I am old, I will leave to you all a Mindanao that is governed in peace,” promised Rodrigo Duterte on the presidential campaign trail in 2016.

Although he is not the first Filipino president to pledge to bring peace to the troubled Mindanao region, he has taken bolder steps than his predecessors, inspired perhaps by the fact that he hails from the area.

Now, almost three years later, his efforts are beginning to take effect. While the region remains under martial law, its citizens – the Moros – have now voted for a degree of autonomy.

The BOL has been ratified and the BARMM will come into effect

Duterte pushed hard to garner support for the Bangsamoro Organic Law[OW1] [JP2]  (BOL), which he felt would go a long way towards ending the conflict. The BOL establishes the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and abolishes the previous Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It lays out the path towards self-governance, starting with the setting up of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which will hold power until the first local elections are held in 2022.

It has now been ratified. Under the terms of the law, the Moros Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other rebel groups will drop their demands for independence and demobilise their fighters. The group will play a central part in the new political and judicial landscape of the autonomous region, which will include Sharia courts.

Duterte has worked hard to champion Moro rights

In the BOL, Duterte has gone further than his predecessors in correcting historical injustices promoting lasting peace.

He has also worked at bringing Christians and Muslims together. He repeatedly highlighted the shared roots of both religions and even chanted Muslim phrases himself. He has taken time to consider the views of all concerned parties. Duterte says the law is the result of a long process involving “meaningful and exhaustive” discussions with groups such as MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

He lobbied hard to gain support for the new law, often having to navigate difficult waters to keep the peace process alive. He fired two executives working on the peace process for corrupt practices. While that resulted in his peace advisor Jesus Dureza resigning, his appointment of Carlito Galvez was met with approval from MILF.

A Moro rebel standing in front of a sign describing an intiative by the USAID “Growth With Equity in Mindinao” farming program staged at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) outpost inside the MILF Camp at Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Southern Philippines.
Photo Credit: Mark Nevales/Wikimedia Commons

He will face further challenges

Duterte’s biggest challenge has been – and will remain – getting competing rebel groups to work together and back the new BOL. [OW3] For example, [JP4] MILF is a breakaway group of the MNLF, whose leader Nur Misuari once led the fight for independence. MNLF condemned the deal the MILF did with the government in 2014.

However, some factions of the MNLF have lent their support to Duterte and the BOL. While the two groups issued a joint statement calling for Moros to vote ‘yes’ to the new law, there is still work to do.

Moving forward, Duterte must achieve a compromise that both the MNLF and MILF can get behind. Early indications are promising. This time, he has reached out to the MNLF to secure their involvement in future negotiations.

Duterte must now avoid the pitfalls of the ARMM

Mindanao is crippled by poverty. Marawi needs to be rebuilt. The threat of extremism remains, and the Filipino government must guard against Mindanao becoming another Bandeh Aceh, where the establishment of sharia law has fostered conservative Islam.

Duterte stressed that autonomy must not lead to inequality. The government must support the region or risk repeating the mistakes that led to the ARMM failing.

Without financial support from Manila, the region could become even poorer. To that end, the BARMM will receive an annual amount of P5 billion (US$1.2 billion) from the central government for 10 years to help rebuild the region.

The BARMM will have a high degree of financial autonomy. They will receive an allocation from the annual block grant the government collects, although they must pass appropriations laws before spending any of it.

A statement from the Philippines government further explained, “Taxes collected from the region will be split 25%-75% in favour of the Bangsamoro Government. This sharing arrangement aims for the Bangsamoro Government to catch up with other region[s] in terms of economic developments as it suffered years of accumulated neglect due to the armed conflict and under investments both from the government and the private sector.”

Duterte deserves the label of a Moro people’s president… for now

Duterte’s determination to see through a course of action may provide the Moros with a better future. He has shown political courage in dedicating himself to the Moro cause in a country which is 94% Christian.

While he should be lauded for what he has done he cannot take all of the credit. After all, Fidel Ramos and Benigno Aquino III could have made the same claim after their efforts to bring the rebels to the negotiating table and introduce the ARMM. Rather than forge a new path, Duterte has built on the work of his predecessors.

For now, that work has enabled the Moros to take the first steps on an uneven road towards peace and prosperity. Without Duterte in power, they might not even have had the opportunity.

If by 2022, federalism in the Mindanao region has led to renewed prosperity, better living conditions, and, crucially, peace, then Duterte’s legacy may be that of a Moro people’s president. Otherwise, he will have been no bigger a champion of the Moros than Ramos or Aquino.