On Jan 21, voters in the Mindanao autonomous region in the Philippines voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to become a part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, a self-administered area to be created for Mindanao’s Muslims.
Six municipalities in Lanao del Norte province, however, decided against being included in the second Bangsamoro plebiscite on Feb 6.
The Mindanao referendum is a welcome development, both for the Philippines and the region.
Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest island located the south of the country, has been in turmoil for the past four decades. The autonomous region in Mindanao — where around 90% of the population is Muslim, or Moro, as they are locally called — has been struggling for decades to gain more autonomy from Manila, to establish Bangsamoro, literally, the Nation of the Moro. The Moro are not asking for full sovereignty as a state, but an autonomous state that is free to govern as per their own laws and customs.
Muslim missionaries started arriving on the island during the 13th century, but the island was later colonised by the Spanish, who arrived in the 15th century. While the Moro once constituted the majority in Mindanao, their numbers and influence have been curtailed for decades — first by the Spanish settlers, then by the Japanese for a brief period, followed by the United States. Last but not least, under the state mandated “Homestead Program” instituted by the Christian majority.
Since the departure of the Americans, the Moro have been tussling with the Philippine government to seek an autonomous status. Leading the struggle was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which engaged in both peaceful dialogues and violent struggles with government forces.
The MNLF was recognised by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and supported by the Libyan and Indonesian governments in the 1980s, and talks of allowing it to function as the administrator of an autonomous region went on for decades. This culminated with the signing of the Jakarta Peace Agreement in 1996.
The front, however, was later overcome by the more radical Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is more active in pursuing the autonomy agenda.
While peace agreements have been signed, the implementation of its deals remains slow — agitating the MNLF, MILF, and other fringe organisations fighting for greater autonomy. Banking on the dissatisfaction of the Moro over the slow progress towards real autonomy, smaller, more radical groups with links to the Islamic State (IS) — often also patronised by the MILF — have emerged to make matters worse.
Foreign fighters then began coming to the island to train fringe militant groups, and as per a report by the Guardian, between 40 to 100 foreign fighters have travelled to Mindanao to drum up support for the IS.
During President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, local terrorists with links to the IS stormed the city of Marawi, which forced him to place Mindanao under martial law for a year. Hailing from Mindanao himself, Mr Duterte have been pushing for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law and the formation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, which has helped him win the support from the Moro in Mindanao.
In a rather swift turn of events, a reluctant congress ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law on July 26 last year. Under the law, the rebels agree to give up their pursuit of an independent state, in exchange for broader autonomy. Between 30,000 to 40,000 fighters will be demobilised, and by 2022, the region will have its own elections — and its constituents will vote in the members of their own parliament, as well as chief minister.
The central government, however, will remain in charge of policing and security.
The plebiscite will end decades of violence, help quell threats of radicalisation, and bring about peace, prosperity, and the rule of law.
Murad Ibrahim, MILF leader and the incumbent head of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, said upon casting his vote, “This solifidies the transformation from armed struggle to democratic politics.”
Mr Duterte argues that this referendum — which in essence, is his first move towards establishing federalism in the Philippines — will lead to a more equal distribution of funds for impoverished provinces in the country, who will have the freedom to decide their fate.
Sceptics fear that Mr Duterte’s push towards federalism is aimed at extending his stay in office beyond 2022, although Mr Duterte himself said that he will not stay beyond his current term.
For Asean — a unified region with highly porous borders — the threat of foreign fighters and elements like the IS entering their territory has always been a great concern. Further escalation in the Philippines would have eventually seeped through to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei — all Muslim nations with sea borders with the Philippines.
As such, Mr Duterte’s move to give the Moro people more voice, power and autonomy — which will end decades of bloodshed and help secure the entire region — will go down well with its Asean neighbours. The Moro will finally be able to chart the courses of their own future, and those who belong to other faiths on the island will hopefully be freed from the cycle of poverty, violence and infighting.
Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the international think tank, the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG), with presence in Melbourne, Vienna, Dhaka, and Dubai. He can be contacted via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org