Ruurdje Laarhoven, a Dutch-American scholar, wrote in her book, "Triumph of Moro Diplomacy: The Maguindanao Sultanate in the 17th Century" (New Day, 1989) the story of how the Maguindanao Sultanate preserved its independence by playing off colonial powers, Spain and the Dutch Netherlands, against each other. According to one reviewer, the book was perhaps the first attempt to depict Mindanao within its natural zone of activity, which in the 17th century included the Southern Philippines, North Maluku and Sulawesi (the last two of which are part of modern Indonesia). Now we are in the 21st century in the year 2013, and we are witness again to another triumph in diplomacy. But this time it is a triumph of Western diplomacy regarding the same territorial space that the Maguindanao Sultanate occupied in southern Philippines.
On October 15, 2012, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in a formal ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila witnessed by Philippine President Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Exmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro followed 15 years of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF with Malaysia acting as facilitator cum mediator of the peace talks regularly held in Kuala Lumpur. It is not yet a completed peace agreement but merely a framework with annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalization and modalities still to be negotiated and finalized by the end of the year. The OIC imprimatur to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is important because it has been involved in trying to resolve the Moro conflict peacefully since 1974 when it brokered an autonomy formula for the Bangsamoro under the Tripoli Peace Agreement of 1976 which was never satisfactorily implemented leading to renewed cycles of armed conflict. But now the OIC is an observer in the GPH-MILF peace talks since a number of its member countries are part of the peace process with Malaysia as the facilitator, Turkey and Saudi Arabia as members of the International Contact Group, and Brunei and Indonesia as members of the International Monitoring Team that monitors the ceasefire on the ground.
In President Aquino's speech on October 7 announcing that the two negotiating parties have come to an agreement he said and I quote: "The ARMM (referring to the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) is a failed experiment. Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system, and those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun. We cannot change this without structural reform. This is the context that informed our negotiations throughout the peace process. And now, we have forged an agreement that seeks to correct these problems. It defines our parameters and our objectives, while upholding the integrity and sovereignty of our nation. This agreement creates a new political entity, and it deserves a name that symbolizes and honors the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao, and celebrates the history and character of that part of our nation. That name will be Bangsamoro." In one stroke, Bangsamoro has been acknowledged by the Philippine government's highest official and its head of state.
The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro itself provides: "The Parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable and that the Bangsamoro shall be established to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The Bangsamoro is the new autonomous political entity….The Parties recognize Bangsamoro identity. Those who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands including Palawan, and their descendants whether of mixed or of full blood shall have the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro by ascription or self-ascription." The recognition of Bangsamoro identity and homeland is in accordance with international standard practice on the recognition of indigenous people's right to self-determination as contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This diplomatic triumph wherein the negotiating parties arrived at a peace agreement is due in large part to Western legal advances in international relations, peace processes, mediation and conflict resolution and to the diplomatic tools designed and applied by Western powers in other conflict-affected areas around the world. The ideas of shared sovereignty, earned sovereignty, devolution process and engaging with armed non-state actors emanated from think tanks, the academe and diplomatic policy experts of Western institutions and Western governments. The creation of Bangsamoro is not unlike the creation of Kosovo and the establishment of Bosnia as forms of conflict resolution through Western intervention. In the case of the Bangsamoro it was soft Western intervention through the mechanism of the International Contact Group composed of Britain, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and international non-governmental organizations namely, the Asia Foundation, Conciliation Resources, Muhammadiyah and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The negotiating parties took lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process, Aceh peace process, South Sudan peace process, devolution in Scotland, power-sharing in Catalonia and Basque Country and dealt with experts and lessons on conflict zones from other parts of the world from Colombia to Myanmar. On the ground best practices at peacekeeping and ceasefire monitoring such as a Civilian Protection Component (similar to the US-led Civilian Protection Monitoring Team in South Sudan) were adopted by the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team with contingents coming from the European Union (EU), Japan, Norway, Brunei, Indonesia and Libya. The World Bank engaged with the MILF through grassroots projects in Mindanao; probably the first time that the World Bank partnered with an armed non-state actor. By 2008-2009, the United Nations agencies were already present in Mindanao after large scale displacements reaching up to 600,000 people were caused by fighting between the MILF and the Philippine military that arose out of an aborted attempt to sign in 2008 a preliminary peace agreement, the so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.
What triggered all this Western support to resolve a half-forgotten conflict in a far corner of the world was the letter of Salamat Hashim, the late founder of the MILF, in 2003 to then US President George Bush wherein he stated in his letter:
"Your project to grant Philippine independence obliged the leaders of the Moro Nation to petition the US Congress to give us an option through a referendum either by remaining as a territory to be administered by the US Government or granted separate independence fifty years from the grant of Philippine independence. Were it not for the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Moro Nation would have been granted trust territory status like any of the Pacific island states who are now independent or in free association with the United States of America.
On account of such circumstances, the Moro Nation was deprived of their inalienable right to self-determination, without waiving their plebiscitary consent. Prior to the grant of Philippine independence on July 4, 1946, American Congressional leaders foresaw that the inclusion of the Moro Nation within the Philippine Commonwealth would result in serious conflicts in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, arising from the inability of the Filipino leaders to govern the Moro people. This condition or states of affairs have continued to prevail to the present day.
In view of current global developments and regional security concerns in Southeast Asia, it is our desire to accelerate the just and peaceful negotiated settlement of the Mindanao conflict, particularly the present colonial situation in which the Bangsamoro people find themselves.
We are therefore appealing to the basic principle of American fairness and sense of justice to use your good offices in rectifying the error that (sic) continuous to negate and derogate the Bangsamoro People’s fundamental right to seek decolonization under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960. For this purpose, we are amenable to inviting and giving you the opportunity to assist in resolving this predicament of the Bangsamoro People."
Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelley wrote back to Salamat Hashim enunciating US policy regarding the conflict in June of the same year - that the United States government is committed to the territorial integrity of the Philippines; the United States recognizes that the Muslims of the southern Philippines have serious, legitimate grievances that must be addressed; the United States wishes to see an end to the violence in the southern Philipines and is working to assist the Republic of the Philippines in addressing the root causes of that violence; the United States stands ready to support, both politically and financially, a bona fide peace process between the Republic of the Philippines and the MILF; and lastly that the United States appreciates the notable work that the Government of Malaysia has performed in this connection and would not seek to supplant Kuala Lumpur; in fact, it wanted to work with the Malaysians for a successful peace settlement.
Indeed, after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the White House issued an official statement wherein it commended Malaysia for facilitating the framework agreement between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). "We commend the Philippines Government and the MILF leadership for their hard work and unwavering commitment to a better future, as well as Malaysia for its longstanding role as facilitator of the negotiations," the statement from the press secretary's office of the White House read.
For the longest time the conflict in Mindanao has bedeviled the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Despite two interventions through OIC mediation and facilitation that led to the signing of the Tripoli Peace Agreement of 1976 and 1996 GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement in Jakarta, the OIC failed to resolve the conflict because it depended too much on the recognition of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as the "sole representative of the Bangsamoro people" wherein the OIC even granted observer status to the MNLF. The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is more inclusive because it gave the rest of the Bangsamoro people including MNLF representatives the chance to be part of the Transition Commission that will draft the Basic Law or charter of the Bangsamoro. The MILF was also consistent in sending out the message that it was negotiating on behalf of the Bangsamoro people and not for the MILF organization alone so that practically all the members of its negotiating peace panel are not organic members of the MILF. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are part of the International Contact Group and influential members of the OIC can join with the OIC's Southeast Asian members, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, the latter two of which have contingents in the International Monitoring Team, in redeeming the record of the OIC in Mindanao by assisting in the implementation of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is an opportunity for collaboration between the OIC and the West. In fact, Britain had already signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the OIC recently that could very well be a platform for joint initiatives in the Bangsamoro. Similarly, the US government engaged with the OIC as co-partner to advance Track 1.5 Diplomacy for Peace and Prosperity at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September this year. Doing collaborative programs and projects in the Bangsamoro can enhance such cooperation by the OIC with leading Western powers like Britain and the US.
The key to all these collaborations happening on the ground is, of course, engaging with the Armed Non-State Actor, the MILF, that is the signatory to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and their various interlocutors. The Philippine government itself recognizes that it needs to partner with the MILF and only by making it a strong partner for security and peace can there be a successful implementation of a peace agreement. In fact, the MILF was already astute enough with the cooperation of the Philippine peace panel to establish the Bangsamoro Development Agency and the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute, the latter even getting seed money of five million pesos from the government. During his interview at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in October, President Aquino made this telling statement referring to the MILF "that once was not a direct partner of the government, and I refer specifically to the MILF," but will now be "a very active component (of the government) in preserving the peace in Mindanao.” “They (MILF) have already demonstrated when the BIFF (the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) allegedly perpetrated a lot of atrocities during the midst of the (peace) discussions. They have contained the same. They have actually demonstrated their capacity to police their areas. So it is not a hypothetical theory. It is an actual practice that they were effective in helping us maintain the so called outbreak of violence that the BIFF was stating," he added.
The maritime Southeast Asian countries, which are Muslim countries and members of the OIC namely, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia are all part in one way or another of the success of the GPH-MILF peace process up to this point. Their collaboration in securing the peace on the ground and in monitoring the ceasefire in Mindanao in their own maritime backyard is something that must be encouraged and nurtured. It is a unique collaboration in that these maritime Southeast Asian states worked with the foremost maritime state in Asia, Japan and with the European Union and Norway, also a maritime state with a long seafaring tradition. Malaysian diplomatic perseverance in trying to resolve the Mindanao Conflict for 15 long years must surely be commended and lauded but Indonesia itself, the growing regional power in Southeast Asia, showed its diplomatic maturity and flexibility in relying on the 30-million strong moderate Islamist social movement of Muhammadiyah to be its representative in the International Contact Group.
On the other hand, the United States is represented in the International Contact Group albeit not officially by the Asia Foundation, which began in 1951 as the Committee for Free Asia, which, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), was “an ostensibly private body . . . sanctioned by the National Security Council and, with the knowledge of congressional oversight committees, supported with covert indirect Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funding” (CRS 1983). The CIA no longer funds the Asia Foundation but it retains its mystique as a former CIA conduit for funding covert American activities. So it would not be surprising if later on the conspiracy-minded Philippine press will publish accusations that the Bangsamoro is a CIA creation just like the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in 2008 was viewed as the brainchild of the United States Institute of Peace since it was involved in the peace process at that time on the issue of ancestral domain of the Moros. Over all the impact of such hair-brained conspiracy theories still make Western diplomacy, particularly that of the United States, seem invincible and triumphant, as well as, bolstering the prestige of Western intelligence agencies.
There may arise emerging competing blocks of Western powers with regard to the Bangsamoro. The first block would pertain to the Anglosphere or the British Commonwealth countries. Of the countries, that issued official statements with regard to the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, all the Anglosphere Commonwealth countries, namely Australia, New Zealand and Canada issued their own official statements. Australia is one of the biggest donors in Muslim Mindanao funding mostly basic education. New Zealand was the main funder of the UNDP Philippine Development Report of 2005 that highlighted the conflict in Mindanao and Canada for 18 years funded a local good governance program in the ARMM that ended in 2009. President Aquino is set to go on a State Visit to Australia and New Zealand in the coming weeks and it has been reported in the news that he will bring the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro as part of his agenda with the two countries. Australia is the only major donor country in the Philippine that has strategic interests in Mindanao but is not officially involved in any of the organs of the peace architecture of the GPH-MILF peace process; although it has the advantage of having signed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines allowing its military personnel to train in the country. However, it was the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy that published in 2006 a research paper that became the blueprint for Western engagement in the Mindanao conflict entitled, "Mindanao: A Gamble Worth Taking" (Cook and Collier). It is worth noting also that Brunei and Malaysia are Commonwealth countries with Malaysia having a defense treaty under the Five Powers Defense Arrangement with Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore so it would seem natural that the Commonwealth countries would support Malaysia in its facilitation role in the GPH-MILF peace talks.
The other emerging block are the EU countries but it is still inchoate or uncertain whether or not they are really major geopolitical players in the Bangsamoro because the EU has an incoherent foreign policy as can be expected from a multilateral agency. The foreign minister of the EU, Catherine Ashton, a British national, made an official statement regarding the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Britain sits in the International Contact Group and it is an EU member while the EU itself is a member of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team and they have sent two monitors for human rights and international humanitarian law. The monitors from the EU in the International Monitoring Team have been British nationals ever since they started sending monitors but it is unknown how closely they coordinate with the British government. Superficially at least, the British dominate the EU presence in the Bangsamoro and it is more than likely Britain will be one of the biggest funders of EU initiatives in the Bangsamoro. The EU will probably continue contributing funds to peace-building in Mindanao but it will not be a driver of diplomatic engagements on the ground due to its bureaucratic, hide-bound and protocol-oriented nature. It is not clear if the EU even has a policy on how to engage with Armed Non-State Actors as it has been inconsistent in meeting and engaging the MILF wherein one former ambassador of the EU was instrumental in getting a kidnapped Irish priest released using MILF fighters to run after the kidnappers while the current EU ambassador has not even set foot in the headquarters of the MILF even as his predecessor has trooped to it a number of times. For the rest of the international players and the Bangsamoro constituents, dealing with the EU consume much of their time so that EU has been left to fund NGOs and multi-donor agencies of the UN. The EU is still evolving an institutional capacity for donor intervention on its own account but they have to be managed well, since the EU is like an ungainly giant that lacks fine motor control and liable to crush the toes and feet of those it dances with, even if it is unintentional.
Japan is supreme in the Bangsamoro and can be considered first among equals in terms of how it has handled its intervention in the Bangsamoro. It enjoys the unique advantage of being a member of both the International Contact Group and the International Monitoring Team. It is a testament to Japan's skillful diplomacy that both negotiating parties were eager to have Japan play a role in the peace process in as many capacities as it is capable of handling. Japan is the largest source of Official Development Assistance in the Philippines and it has been working in the country on development issues for many years. But it is also one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investments in the country dominating the car and electronic industries of the Philippines with investments from power generation to mining and agricultural ventures. Japan from the beginning was very conscious in branding its development interventions so that people in the Bangsamoro can directly identify with their projects earning them legitimacy. One example of this is that even before the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Japan put all its projects relating to the peace process under the rubric Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD) and this bit of branding was inspired genius leaving other donor interventions in the dust from the start of its soft-launching. Japan will continue to be a trendsetter in the Bangsamoro because it can bank on its tremendous relationship and social capital after earning the trust of both parties and the Bangsamoro constituency.
The transformation of the MILF into a political partner in the peace process will be handled best by the maritime and Muslim Southeast Asian states of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Indonesia in particular with its vibrant democracy and through Muhammadiyah can help MILF transform into a peaceful and progressive social movement for the benefit of the downtrodden Moro masses. Malaysia with its advanced means of social control can provide lessons in living in a multi-ethnic society balancing the needs of each distinct community. Brunei with its emphasis on an Islamic way of life can contribute in the Bangsamoro on how it integrates an Islamic way of life in nation building to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The Western countries with their resources can work through these Muslim Southeast Asian states but at the same time it can work through the OIC since Turkey and Saudi Arabia are members of the International Contact Group. The current Secretary-General is a Turk while the OIC headquarters is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. So both Turkey and Saudi Arabia can guide OIC interventions in the Bangsamoro since they have been part of the International Contact Group from the beginning and they have observed first hand how the peace process and the peace talks were forged between the negotiating parties including the nuances and the inevitable compromises that the negotiating parties had to take.
The overall global and regional geopolitical context of this triumph of Western diplomacy in the Bangsamoro is the US pivot to Asia. While the rest of the West including Japan does soft intervention to keep the lid on the troubles in Mindanao, over the horizon is the looming shadow of the US armed forces. In fact, this month US and Philippine officials have announced that Subic Bay in Northern Luzon island, once home to the 7th Fleet and the site of the United States' largest overseas naval base, will begin to host US personnel on a semi-permanent basis. Subic Bay is facing Scarborough Shoal, which has continued to be Chinese-occupied after China and the Philippines engaged in a fishing row regarding the shoal early this year. A Chinese submarine once collided with a US Navy vessel in the waters off Subic Bay. Coinciding with the return of the US Navy to Subic Bay is the beginning of closer security cooperation between Australia and the Philippines after the ratification of the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia by the Philippine Senate this year. Australia and the Philippines are conducting Naval exercises this week dubbed “Lumbas 2012,” the 12th annual Maritime Training Activity between the Philippines and Australia. It is aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the naval forces of both countries in disaster response and fighting cross-border crimes such as terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Due to the ongoing peace process, the Philippine military can look forward to winding down its counterinsurgency and internal security operations in Mindanao so that it can focus more on external defense.
Malaysia, which already has a border patrol agreement with the Philippines, is discussing with the Philippines the possibility of having its own formal Status of Visiting Forces Agreement in the wake of the successful signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro. This is the next logical step for Malaysia because it has been leading since 2003 the deployment of unarmed multi-national troops in Mindanao headed by a Malaysian General together with a contingent of Malaysian soldiers, the biggest contingent in the International Monitoring Team. The significant on the ground interaction and cooperation between Malaysian military officers and Philippine military officers brought about by the deployment of Malaysian troops in the International Monitoring Team can be sustained with a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement. Both Malaysia and the Philippines are locked in maritime disputes with China regarding the South China Sea. Japan for its part has contributed patrol ships to the Philippine Coast Guard and is a premier security partner of both Malaysia and the Philippines but it only has a civilian peace monitor in the International Monitoring Team.
Indonesia is not left behind because it has its own border patrol and maritime interdiction agreements with both the Philippines and Malaysia. However, Indonesia is wary of any developing Malaysian and Philippine defense cooperation because of the history of British-Malaysian military actions towards Indonesia during the Konfrontasi period and the Philippine's own intervention through the CIA in Sulawesi during the Colonels’ or Permesta revolt in Sulawesi and Sumatra of which President Aquino's father, the late Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, was a part of. Hopefully, with the deployment of Indonesian troops under the International Monitoring Team, a lot of socialization and habits of cooperation can happen and develop among Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine troops and officers.
But at the end of the day the successful coordination of this complicated diplomatic and security dance between and among countries and block of countries depends on a successful peace process in Mindanao. The Bangsamoro project has begun in earnest and those that fail to sustain a long-term interest in the Bangsamoro will surely be left behind in the Great Game of maritime Southeast Asia.
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 Supra note 6.
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