For nearly three million Filipino Muslims, a new era of autonomy and self-government will soon be realized. Monday’s plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law represents what many hope is the first step towards the resolution of a decades-long conflict between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). As a result of this vote, a new Muslim-led entity known as the Bangsamoro (meaning Moro nation) will be created on the southern island of Mindanao. This territorial establishment has been long awaited, as it was six years ago that the Filipino government signed a peace deal with the MILF, which dropped its bid for independence in return for the right to self-rule, but only six months ago that President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
Though certainly a major win for the MILF, Monday’s result hardly comes as a surprise. According to Al Jazeera, the resolution passed with a resounding majority of 1.7 million in favor and some 254,000 against. MILF leader Murad Ebrahim commented to the AFP news agency after Monday’s vote, “we are very happy about the overwhelming support of the people, it was a landslide. There’s been nothing like this.” Despite evident popular support, this measure did encounter some resistance, as Duterte endured a degree of infighting among congressional allies. The president’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, reacted to this complication on Thursday, stating, “after much confusion, the president has signed into law the Bangsamoro Organic Law.” It is the hope of the national government that, following Monday’s vote, Bangsamoro will be accessible to all of the nation’s varying Muslim groups. The MILF shares this aspiration, as Ebrahim stated, “it is very difficult for them to exist minus the support of some people in the area, if the people support the result of the peace process, there is no choice for these small groups except to join.”
The creation of a newly autonomous region for Filipino Muslims represents a significant step towards the reduction of conflict in the Philippines. Recent years have seen not only conflict between the national government and the MILF, but also the incursion of the Islamic State. In fact, the city of Marawi, notable for its seizure by ISIL in 2016, will be part of the newly created Bangsamoro. Allowing for Muslim self-rule in this region will offer a substantial political alternative to radicalized Islam. Particularly in such a staunchly Catholic nation as the Philippines, the ability of the Muslim Moros to exercise autonomy will likely go far to end religious hostilities and encourage peaceable coexistence. However, the true test of this arrangement is likely on the horizon, as each side faces the practicality of autonomous governance within the context of a dominant political entity. In particular, the administration of security will likely be contentious, as the burden will be shared between armed members of both Duterte’s government and the tens of thousands of soldiers of the MILF, most of whom are to surrender their weapons. Still, the arrangement is a vast improvement on the open conflict, which facilitated poverty, chaos, and the rise of ISIL in past years.
Since the late 1970s, this conflict has wrought upwards of 120,000 deaths, largely in Mindanao, as the MILF has waged a separatist struggle. The newly created political entity will replace the much smaller Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an early experiment in Muslim political autonomy granted to limited numbers, mostly from the Tausug ethnic group. The ARMM has been widely considered a failure for its mismanagement and endemic corruption, creating a cycle of poverty and violence rather than autonomy.
The Bangsamoro will hopefully differ from the ARMM in providing a territory of substantial autonomy, which can be governed in a relatively uninhibited and transparent manner. Of course there is no guarantee of such an optimistic outcome. Conflict may still arise over the finer points of administration of autonomy; yet, the Bangsamoro does seem to be a measurable improvement. This newly created territory will supposedly be more inclusive of varying Muslim groups and will enjoy both a larger geographic and fiscal base. Despite the potential for conflict, the Bangsamoro should be a step towards the elimination of cyclical poverty and radicalized versions of Islam in favor of moderate self-governance.
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