In the restive southern Philippines, a new autonomous Muslim government on Mindanao formed by ex-militants is reaching out to Islamic State-linked terrorists. The effort represents the region’s best chance at lasting stability and hinges on bringing extremist militants to the table while also bringing economic growth and inclusive development.
The leader of a new autonomous Muslim region on the island of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, has opened a dialogue with Islamic State-linked militants and says that a portion of the combatants are willing to cooperate.
Murad Ebrahim, head of the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), said that the Abu Sayyaf group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) are willing to work with the new government on peace efforts.
Bangsamoro includes the city of Marawi, which saw six months of violent clashes in 2017 between the Philippine army and the Maute and Abu Sayyaf jihadist groups, both affiliated with the Islamic State.
“We are opening a dialogue with them… convincing them to join us, the government,” Murad said on January 29. “Two of the three groups are open. We are working for the 900 of them that would like to join. We temporarily delay the ceremony since some of them are facing arrest warrants.”
Murad himself previously led the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an armed militant group that fought the Philippine army in pursuit of self-rule from the 1970s until 2014, in a conflict that killed at least 100,000 people and displaced as many as two million.
Mindanao and the other islands that make up the Bangsamoro region are home to the vast majority of the Muslims in the largely Catholic Philippines. The MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the 1970s to push for autonomy rather than cessation from the Philippines.
The BARMM is the product of years of negotiations between the MILF and the government in Manila and represents the latest effort to establish stability in a region rocked by violence from both Islamic extremist groups and militants pushing for self-governance.
The success of the government depends largely on preventing violent conflict and ending threats from extremist groups. That requires addressing the legitimate demands of Muslim leaders in the region who may be more sympathetic to groups like the MNLF than to the MILF and Murad’s interim administration. Mindanao’s conflicts are exacerbated by development challenges: high unemployment and an economic model that extracts gains from valuable minerals and other natural resources while bringing minimal benefit to local populations.
Muslim Mindanao pushes for peace via self-rule
In early 2019, citizens across seven provinces voted to establish the BARMM, which replaces a previous autonomous administration established in 1990. Efforts to cement an autonomous Muslim region of Mindanao struggled in the past due to the MILF and other militants’ ties to Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah.
The BARMM is made up of the provinces of Basilan, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur, which includes the city of Marawi, as well as most of North Cotabato province and part of Lanao del Norte province.
The interim Bangsamoro government—known as the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA)—will govern through June 2022 and consists of 80 members appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte; the majority of them are members of the MILF or endorsed by the MILF.
However, the transitional government does not have the support of some factions of the MNLF, due to concerns that the BARMM government will be dominated by the MILF. The MNLF doesn’t have an effective political party and, as the new autonomous region will be governed by a parliamentary system, this constitutes a sticking point.
As Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College and Georgetown University in the US, pointed out recently, this presents a dilemma as the BARMM’s parliamentary system was designed explicitly to guarantee representation for the MNLF and the factions it represents.
Success of autonomous government depends on peace
Murad’s announcement that dialogues are progressing came just days after two roadside bombings killed at least three people in Maguindanao and North Cotabato. Authorities suspect that BIFF was behind the attacks.
To support the region’s transition to a new government, including outreach to still-active extremists, some analysts and members of the interim administration say its mandate must be extended until 2025. The bid to extend the transition has prompted significant political and legal debate but already has the backing of President Duterte, previously the Mayor of Davao City, located on Mindanao to the southeast of Bangsamoro.
”The transition is not simply about a transition from ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] to BARMM,” said BARMM Minister of Interior and Local Government Naguib Sinarimbo. “It is also a transition for the MILF from a revolutionary armed group to one that would now transition into a political party that will participate in democratic and peaceful processes for change.”
The interim government is now tasked with addressing Mindanao’s needs in its post-conflict transition. This includes supporting those displaced by conflict by building shelter and providing services, as well as working to decommission around 40,000 MILF members. Over 12,000 former fighters in Mindanao have already committed to the government’s social welfare and transition program, according to a Philippine government peace process spokesperson.
But the efforts of Murad and the BARMM will be largely unsustainable unless the government can bring structural changes to support economic development. As the New Straits Times’ John Teo wrote in January, peace in the southern Philippines “is only possible if the vast economic potentials of the region can be fairly quickly translated into concrete improvements in the daily lives of some of the poorest inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago.”