Philippine Peace Agreement on Bangsamoro: Hope for Prosperity in Mindanao

Vol. 43 No. 3

By

Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang is special counsel with SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan in Makati City, Philippines. Prior to returning to the Philippines, Mr. Yu Chang practiced as senior counsel with Warner Norcross & Judd LLP in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds JD degrees from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and Ateneo de Manila University School of Law in the Philippines.

Amidst a bullish economy brought about in part by growing consumer and government spending and increasing foreign investment, among other things, the Republic of the Philippines potentially stands to benefit from another boost—the prospect of peace and prosperity in the war-torn southern island of Mindanao. With a land area of 102,043 square kilometers comprising 34 percent of the country’s total, Mindanao is the second largest of the three main Philippine islands.

On March 27, 2014, a comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro was signed at Malacañan Palace, the official residence of the president of the Philippines, in Manila by and between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Moody’s Investors Service has dubbed this development as “credit positive” for the Philippines.

MILF was founded in the 1960s to achieve greater autonomy for the Moro, the Muslim population in Mindanao. Bangsamoro is the proposed political entity for the Moro people of Mindanao. The Malaysian government named Tengku Ghafar to serve as facilitator in the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF.

The agreement has renewed hopes for lasting peace in Mindanao, with more favorable terms (including greater fiscal autonomy) for the Bangsamoro. It provides means for wealth and power-sharing with the Bangsamoro that include the grant of exclusive powers (e.g., in relation to natural resources and ancestral domain) and the allocation to the Bangsamoro of 75 percent of taxes collected in the territory. It also lays out the process for MILF fighters to put down weapons once all the other groups have been disarmed.

Aimed precisely at ending armed conflict in Mindanao, the agreement paves the way for the drafting of an enabling law that will formalize the creation of the Bangsamoro. The enabling law will be subject to ratification in a plebiscite. Upon ratification, a transition body, which will consist of appointees named by the Philippine president and the MILF, will govern the region until a regional parliament is elected.

President Benigno C. Aquino III has emphasized the urgency of the passage of the enabling law and appears to be aiming for the first local elections for the Bangsamoro to take place in 2016, the year the president’s term will expire.

The signing of the agreement has not been free of controversy. A prominent Philippine senator and constitutionalist has questioned the agreement’s constitutionality. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has observed that the agreement “diminishes the sovereignty of the Philippine government” by listing “the powers that the central government can retain” and, according to her, “attempts to redefine the sovereignty of the Philippine state.” Furthermore, Senator Santiago has noted the apparent violation of the principle of “constitutional supremacy” in a provision that empowers the Bangsamoro Transition Commission “to work on proposals to amend the Philippine Constitution for the purpose of accommodating and entrenching in the [Charter] the agreements of the [p]arties.” Supporters of the peace accord view these comments as an opportunity to “correct whatever defects there may be in [the] agreement so that we can save the peace process for the sake of the people of Mindanao.”

The decades-old insurgency in Mindanao traces its beginnings to an incident on March 18, 1968, known as the “Jabidah Massacre.” Details of the massacre remain disputed. Essentially, 60 young Muslim men, who were recruited to the Philippine army and had been allegedly trained for a secret mission to invade the island of Sabah (now considered part of Malaysia), were killed when they allegedly refused to fulfill the mission that would have pitted Muslim against Muslim. The incident sparked outrage among Muslims and gave rise to civil and armed movements, which resulted in the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and subsequent hostilities in the following years.

The agreement and the underlying initiative had a few unsuccessful precursors. Notably, on July 25, 1979, under the regime of then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Batas Pambansa No. 20 was enacted, creating a regional autonomous government in Western and Central Mindanao. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, as it is known today, was created pursuant to Republic Act No. 6734, otherwise known as the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was signed into law by then-President Corazon C. Aquino on August 1, 1989. The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines had called for the creation of the ARMM. See art. X, § 15.

Unfortunately, the ARMM has been regarded as a “failed experiment.” With the Organic Act providing for a very limited budget that mostly covered salaries of ARMM personnel, no development projects had been implemented in the ARMM and it did not serve the purpose of promoting the development of the region.

The island of Mindanao is rich in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, gold, and nickel and is considered fertile ground for palm oil, rubber and coconut production; aquaculture; fisheries; food manufacturing; and other agricultural business activities. However, Mindanao is underdeveloped. In 2012, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the ARMM registered a growth of only 1.2 percent, in comparison with 6.8 percent for the entire Philippines. These translated to the lowest share, 0.8 percent, of the country’s GDP and 0.01 percent of the country’s GDP growth in the same year.

The political uncertainty has kept investors from setting up a presence in Mindanao. With the agreement signed, foreign investors may finally trickle to the island and boost the regional economy. New industries, including tourism and agriculture and allied industries, may at last usher jobs and investments into Mindanao and bring about a long-awaited period of prosperity.

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