A milestone along the path to ending a decades-long insurgency that has cost the lives of more than 100,000 people was marked today. There was little fanfare but there should have been. The Philippines Senate ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which aims to create an autonomous region for the Muslim people – or “Moros”, as the Spanish colonialists called them – of the southern island of Mindanao, with their own parliament, ministers, increased funding from national revenue and tax-raising powers.
The House of Representatives had been expected to follow suit, with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte signing the bill on the same day as his state of the nation address, but it failed to do so. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was cautious, calling it a "temporary setback in the administration’s goal of laying the foundation for a more genuine and lasting peace in Mindanao".
Nevertheless, this is an important step on what has been a long and tortuous journey of negotiations in dealing with the serious discontent of a Muslim minority that makes up between five and 10 per cent of the population: first with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 that later substantially unravelled; and then with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with which the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro was signed in 2014.
Hopes were high that it would be implemented swiftly under the then president, Benigno Aquino, but progress ground to a halt after a botched raid led to 44 police commandos dying in a MILF-dominated area in 2015.
After his election, Mr Duterte made clear that putting the agreement into practice was a priority for him –and rightly. For this is not just about ending a bloody and drawn-out conflict. It is also about addressing a major historical injustice.
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Islam has had a strong presence in the Philippines for centuries. The first mosque was established in 1380 and by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, sultanates had been set up on many of the archipelago’s islands. As far north as Manila Bay, the conquering fleet was met by a Muslim raja whose overlord was the Sultan of Brunei.
That all changed after the advent of Spanish rule. But the invaders’ Christian mission and their attempts to subdue the indigenous people never succeeded with the Moros of the south.
As the Indonesian academic Deliar Noer wrote, even during the period when the Philippines was part of America’s empire in the early 20th century, “they looked at themselves and the country in which they lived as a separate entity… when independence was announced in 1946, the Muslims did not feel part of it”.
If that sounds like an overstatement, Mr Noer backed that up by pointing out that Moro leaders submitted a declaration to the US government in 1935 which asked point blank for a separate state.
Later governments of the independent Philippines altered the religious balance of the Moro lands by sending Christians from the north to live there. In 1975, the MNLF’s Nur Misuari complained that “prostitutes, lepers, ex-convicts and all the other dregs of Filipino society… all their social refuse were brought to the Bangsamoro homeland”.
Mr Misuari felt that Manila was undertaking nothing less than a new colonisation, attempting to wipe out the Moros’ culture and even accused the central government of genocide.
Mr Duterte is well-placed to understand this indignation and resentment and that significant self-rule would not only be a reasonable concession to local feeling but could also aid the fight against ISIL-linked local groups, such as the one that occupied part of Marawi City last year.
He is the first president from Mindanao. He has Muslim as well as Christian grandchildren and has Muslim ancestry on his mother’s side. He has said that he has cousins not only in the MILF and MLNF but also possibly in ISIL-linked outfits.
Mr Duterte also knows his history. Although he had a diplomatic fallout with then president Barack Obama in 2016, the Bud Dajo massacre to which he drew attention, in which 600 Moro men, women and children were killed by American soldiers as part of their “pacification” of the island of Jolo in 1906, was genuine. Of course, that had nothing to do with Mr Obama. But anger at how the US had treated his country, whose attempted independence it had crushed and in particular, its brutality towards the Moros, was justifiable.
Mr Duterte also knows Mr Misuari, who has described the president as the “one single man who can provide solution to the problem of peace and order in our homeland”, and has tried to get him on board with the peace process to ensure it is as inclusive as possible.
There are further tests ahead, not least that the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region cannot be officially established until a plebiscite in the area produces a favourable result.
There have also, as I mentioned, been false starts before. But all should wish this agreement success and congratulate all the parties for having managed the necessary compromises.
The MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, says the new law is 85-90 per cent compliant with the peace deal and once the law has fully passed, his organisation will begin laying down the first 30 per cent of its arms.
What an example that sets for the region. And it stands in stark contrast to how Myanmar has treated its similarly sized Muslim minority. Many deserve credit, not least the last Malaysian government which facilitated the negotiations. But whatever one thinks of the controversial Mr Duterte, if he manages to pull this off it will be one achievement for which he will always be remembered and thanked – and rightly so.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia