CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines: For 20 years, peace talks have been taking place in the southern Philippines between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group on Mindanao island with some 12,000 men in its fold.
Guided by its leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the MILF is seeking a degree of autonomy from Manila. If the peace talks come to a successful conclusion, the MILF will become a major leader in a new political entity that will be known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region that will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The ARMM comprises five predominantly Muslim provinces - Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi - on Mindanao.
“The MILF will be at the helm of the Bangsamoro (new political entity) that will replace the current ARMM once the BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) is passed,” Professor Benedicto Bacani, executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG), told Channel NewsAsia.
However, analysts say that even if the peace talks reach a successful conclusion, the MILF will have to work hard to unify a region where other groups also have a strong voice and where Murad’s conciliatory strategy has come in for criticism.
“He is a moderate leader committed to peace,” said Prof Bacani. “Murad has steered the MILF towards a pragmatic and political road. This has helped move the peace process.
“On the other hand, this strength is a weakness for some who consider Murad as having compromised with the government (too) much.”
Murad’s predecessor, Hashim Salamat, was known as a fierce ideologue who split away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the mid-seventies, establishing the MILF in 1984.
Since then, the MILF has established itself as the dominant force in the region – but its influence does not spread everywhere.
“The general perception is that the MILF is strongly supported only in Maguindanao ... It needs to reach out now, more than ever, to the Maranaos who feel that the MILF has not done enough to prevent or help resolve the Marawi incident with less loss of lives and property,” said Prof Bacani.
Maranaos refer to the inhabitants of the city of Marawi. which was attacked by pro-Islamic State groups who laid siege to it for five months before the government took back control on Oct 17. The MILF publicly condemned the attack.
“The island provinces (Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi) are dominated by the MNLF (rather) than the MILF,” Prof Bacani added.
NEED FOR INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP
The MILF’s patchy influence in the southern Philippines could have implications for the group’s ability to lead the region should there be a successful outcome to the protracted peace talks.
“In order to boost its legitimacy as a representative of the majority of Muslims, the MILF has to demonstrate its leadership and capacity to build alliances with other groups. Such legitimacy cannot be imposed by the central government,” said Prof Bacani.
“The MILF has yet to unveil its concrete plan to raise confidence that its brand of governance is better than administrations that preceded the MILF.”
Inclusive leadership is seen as essential as Mindanao’s cultural and social make-up comprises many clans and traditional leaders, as well as the MNLF.
While Murad faces the challenge of bringing together a group of disparate voices, he is also facing difficulties holding his own organisation together.
“Every day that the peace process is delayed, the MILF is weaker, has less popular legitimacy and is less able to implement the (peace) agreement,” said Prof Zachary Abuza of the US National War College in Washington DC.
“Murad has staked his entire career and reputation in the peace process. He is pragmatic and moderate. He has abandoned the group’s maximalist goals (of independence). In the mid-2000s, he tried to purge or isolate hardline opponents who were against the peace process,” said Prof Abuza, who specialises in Southeast Asia politics, insurgencies and terrorism.
“Most Moros believe the government is unable and unwilling to give them meaningful autonomy.”
DUTERTE BEST HOPE FOR SUCCESSFUL PEACE TALKS
Such dynamics are raising questions about whether there can ever be a successful outcome to the peace negotiations.
However, peace negotiators and the MILF remain optimistic – not least because the perception is that President Rodrigo Duterte, who is the first president to hail from Mindanao, is sincere in pushing for a successful conclusion to the talks.
“Duterte has a better sense of the Mindanao conflict and how best to resolve it. He is the first president to open the door for charter (constitutional) change or shifting the country's political system to federalism to accommodate the aspirations for self governance of the Moro people,” said Prof Bacani.
“But it is equally important that the Moro people themselves have a united and strong voice in the political processes that seek to implement the peace agreements.”