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Duterte right to bet on autonomy for troubled Muslim regions

Philippine president faces big challenges in brave bid to resolve decades-old conflict

| Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte kicked off his third year in office with a historic decision, which may radically transform the fortunes of his home island of Mindanao.

In late July, he signed a law paving the way for the creation of a Muslim-majority regional entity in the Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation.

If approved by a plebiscite scheduled for later this year, the new political administration is expected to encompass Muslim-majority provinces from the southern tip of the Philippines all the way to central regions of Mindanao.

Under the new law, tens of thousands of rebels will be disarmed and demobilized as part of a long-term transition plan toward peace, which includes the eventual reintegration of insurgents into the state security apparatus. Called the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the legislation covers the majority of the country's 10 million Muslims, often called Moro, who live mainly in central and southern Mindanao and comprise about 10% of the total national population.

The path ahead, however, is strewn with daunting challenges, including deep-seated ethnic-tribal rivalries among various Moro groups, the absence of basic infrastructure after decades of conflict and neglect across the area, and the enduring appeal of extremism and terrorist organizations in Mindanao.

Duterte and his successors will have to expend huge political capital to mediate between the toxic rivalries existing among rebel groups and allocate time and energy to shepherd the tortuous process of transition, which will test the mettle of Moro leadership like never before. But there is no alternative.

The creation of the Bangsamoro (the nation of Moros) is a core element of the 2014 peace agreement between the Philippine government, then under President Benigno Aquino III, and the country's largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte's predecessor, however, failed to mobilize legislative support for the BOL, previously known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, due to widespread public opposition from Filipino Christians. They were inflamed largely by the Mamasapano Massacre in early 2015, when MILF members killed dozens of Philippine Police Special Forces during a botched counterterror operation.

The tragic incident immediately rekindled deeply ingrained anti-Muslim sentiments among many Christians and undermined mutual trust and confidence between the government and the MILF. It almost cost Aquino his presidency, as a growing number of people, including some of his legislative allies, called for his resignation.

During the 2016 presidential elections, Duterte, the only candidate from Mindanao, was the only major national leader to wholeheartedly support the creation of a Bangsamoro. As the first Filipino president from Mindanao, Duterte portrayed himself as harbinger of peace, who will staunch the gushing wound of communal wars in his home island.

The months-long siege of the city of Marawi in Mindanao last year, led by militants tied to the so-called Islamic State (IS), only reinforced Duterte's determination to mobilize his allies for the passage of the long-stalled Bangsamoro bill.

To him, granting greater autonomy to the Moros is the only way to end the conflict in the troubled south. Only two months after certifying (May) the BOL as an urgent bill, something that his predecessor failed to do during his final years in office, Duterte managed to convince both houses of the Congress to pass a final version, which was amenable to all sides, including the MILF leadership.

The proposed Bangsamoro will supplant the much smaller Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a largely failed experiment at political decentralization heavily concentrated in the southernmost provinces of Mindanao.

Under the new law, the MILF's military wing will be disbanded with its members reintegrated into the emerging Bangsamoro state institutions. The MILF leadership will transform from a coterie of revolutionaries, who saw Manila as a mortal enemy, into the core element of Moro ruling class, but within the overall framework of the Philippine constitution.

The Moro peoples will be able to determine their own legislations and unique administrative regimes, including the creation and expansion of Sharia courts for dispensation of justice. The law also grants greater fiscal autonomy through a 75-25 revenue sharing arrangement, with the Bangsamoro leadership obliged to remit only a quarter of its locally-generated taxes to the national government. Other provinces remit as much as 60%.

Annually, the national government will automatically allocate up to 5% of national revenues, amounting to over $1 billion, to the Bangsamoro administration. Such a 'fiscal transfer' arrangement is meant to help the Bangsamoro institutions to strengthen over time.

Yet, problems abound. First are the myriad ethnic-tribal rivalries, which led to the split within the Moro insurgency movement in the past century. The ARMM has been under the leadership of the Tausug ethnic group, which formed the core leadership of the Maguindanao-dominated MILF's parent organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The Tausug-Maguindanao rivalry has put into question the willingness of provinces under the ARMM to join the proposed larger Bangsamoro entity, where the MILF will be in a strong position for dominance.

Moreover, political dynasties and warlords in some religiously-mixed and more prosperous Muslim-dominated provinces, particularly in Cotabato but also in Lanao del Norte, may also opt out of joining the Bangsamoro, not only due to their rivalries with the MILF leadership but also their interest in preserving a more predictable status quo.

After all, many doubt whether the MILF is capable of successfully transforming from a fierce insurgency into a capable and inclusive governing class. Some among the Moro elite fear greater mayhem and insecurity once Muslim-majority regions are left to their own devices by the national government.

IS-affiliated groups have often branded the MILF as apostates, who have supposedly sold out to the (Christian-dominated) national government. Amid endemic poverty and unemployment, terrorist organizations and extremist ideologues will likely exploit any form of uncertainty to sow discord, incite violence, and push for a more radical form of change.

Surveys also show that the Filipino public is largely 'neutral' on the Bangsamoro issue, reflecting lingering skepticism over the wisdom of such political innovation. It's likely that some critics will challenge the constitutionality of the BOL at the Supreme Court in order to thwart its fruition.

Thus, Duterte will have to allocate significant capital to mediate among rival Moro groups, convince the Filipino people to support the creation of the Bangsamoro nation, and allocate sufficient resources to facilitate the transition.

He is right to take on the risks involved. To do nothing would be to miss a rare opportunity to make peace in regions troubled by violence for decades.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy."

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