April 8, 2016 8:00 am JST
Commentary

Ashley South: The tyranny of elections and dynamics of peace

A bulletin board with pictures of President Benigno Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief Ibarahim Murad next to the national highway in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on June 16, 2015.

There are both significant similarities and major differences between conflicts and peace processes in Myanmar and the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. For decades, armed groups representing ethnic minorities have been fighting government forces to achieve greater autonomy, or independence. In both countries, ethnic communities' grievances include forcible assimilation by a central government dominated by a majority ethnic group (the Bama in Myanmar and the Filipinos in the Philippines) with different languages, cultures and religions.

     Both contexts demonstrate complex political economies of conflict, where nationalist and religious motivation, and personal and clan economic incentives, are deeply entwined. Both have also seen previous cease-fires between the government and a wide range of insurgent groups result in incomplete and ultimately unsuccessful peace processes. It is yet to be seen whether current negotiations in Myanmar and the Philippines will be more successful.

     The Philippine government's recent failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would establish an autonomous region for the Moro -- the Islamic inhabitants of the islands -- has led to a crisis in the Mindanao peace process. Some Moro stakeholders question whether they were right to trust President Benigno Aquino to push through a legal settlement of the long-standing conflict before forthcoming elections. Much depends on how the next president, who will be elected in May, views the peace process.

     Will the new president support the peace process, and push through necessary legislation, or perhaps return to previous political agreements with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as the basis for a comprehensive political settlement? Or will the next Philippine leader choose a new and possibly more confrontational approach, abandoning the significant gains of the last few years?

     The MILF has shown great restraint and commitment to continuing the peace process. Nevertheless, there is widespread dissatisfaction and anger in the Moro community, with the peace process now widely seen as in crisis and under threat. Among the consequences has been increased radicalization, particularly among Moro youth, with the growing presence of groups aligned with the Islamic State group.

     The peace process in southern Philippines is of considerable geopolitical importance, not least because it serves as an example of a Muslim armed group willing to engage in structured political dialogue to address key grievances. Should the Mindanao peace process fail, this will have implications beyond the Philippines.

Focus on cease-fires

In Myanmar, a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has just assumed power, following a landslide election victory last November. The new regime must decide whether to continue with the approach pursued by the previous military-backed regime or press the "reset" button on the peace process. Last October, eight ethnic armed groups signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the outgoing regime and Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw. Despite the absence of another dozen armed groups, who refused to join, this agreement has so far proved more successful than critics expected.

     Joint monitoring mechanisms have been launched, and a political dialogue was initiated in January. In the medium to long term, armed groups in Myanmar are likely to experience declining relevance as mainstream parliamentary politics becomes more entrenched. While the current historic transition in Myanmar may prove an opportunity to reassess state-society relations in the country, it might also represent a turning point in influence for ethnic armed organizations.

     It would be a missed opportunity for both the government and armed opposition groups to turn away from the peace process initiated by former President Thein Sein. However, Myanmar's powerful military is not making things easy, having launched new campaigns against those groups that refused to sign the NCA, unleashing further waves of suffering across the country's north.

     Events over the coming months in the Philippines and Myanmar will test the maturity of the new governments and their willingness to put the prospects of negotiated long-term peace settlements above shorter-term electoral cycles.

     Election victories bring legitimacy to new leaders and provide windows of opportunity for bold action -- particularly in Myanmar, after decades of military rule. Nevertheless, ethnic armed groups in both countries also enjoy significant, if often contested, legitimacy, particularly among marginalized communities that often regard the state as alien. What can be done to sustain these peace processes during possibly lengthy and difficult interregnums?

     Despite the recent setbacks in Mindanao and Myanmar, cease-fire monitoring arrangements can help maintain coordination on the ground and build confidence in the security sector. Ensuring the maintenance of cease-fires will go some way toward restoring the minority communities' lack of trust in government and the armed forces.

     The Mindanao peace process is more advanced than in Myanmar, having started earlier. Representatives from Myanmar's government, armed groups and civil society have visited Mindanao to observe and learn about cease-fire monitoring. These trips are valuable but the lessons could be enhanced by embedding groups from the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups in the International Monitoring Team on Mindanao. In this way, parties to the Myanmar peace process could learn firsthand about the practical value and challenges of cease-fire monitoring and would also have opportunities to deepen relationships of trust and mutual understanding by working together.

Engaging the majority

There are various explanations for the failure of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, including a lack of public support following the Mamasapano incident in January 2015, when some 70 Philippine special police and MILF personnel were killed. This helps to explain why Aquino did not push through the law before the forthcoming elections. The lack of support for the legislation also comes from the public's lack of familiarity with the Moro cause and an absence of understanding and sympathy for it.

     The history of Mindanao is not covered sufficiently in textbooks or in mainstream media and Moro figures are mostly written out of historical narratives of the Filipino nationalist movement. Most Filipinos, particularly outside of Mindanao, do not appreciate the historic injustice and struggle of the Moro people and the legitimacy of their political claims. The establishment of the Bangsamoro autonomous region and a sustainable solution to the armed conflict will only be possible with a significant attitude change in the hearts and minds of the Filipino majority.

     Similarly in Myanmar, as a consequence of decades of military rule, many people have little understanding of the history and circumstances of ethnic communities, particularly those in the conflict regions. Most members of the Bama majority have been denied opportunities to learn about the struggle and suffering of their ethnic brethren. Myanmar has already suffered intercommunal conflict in relation to widespread discrimination against the Muslim community.

     There is potential for cynical and populist politicians to mobilize prejudice against the "other" in relation to the Muslim community, and also potentially in opposition to ethnic nationality demands for self-determination, including federalism. There is therefore a need in Myanmar to educate the Bama majority regarding the grievances and aspirations of ethnic nationality communities to preclude potential populist and divisive efforts to undermine a political settlement.

Wider political dialogue

The experience of the Philippines shows the importance of differentiating between -- and transitioning from -- political/cease-fire agreements and constitutionally legal settlements. Among the lessons to learn for Myanmar and other countries emerging from protracted armed conflict is the difference between agreement in terms of ideological and political positions and investing the necessary political goodwill, capacity-building and technical resources to turn these into realistic and workable legal constitution agreements.

     In addition to the need for constitutional change in both countries, progress toward achieving a realignment of state-society relations faces several challenges.

     The first is to encourage participation on a wider scale -- not only must ethnic armed groups participate in peace talks (the "inclusiveness" problem in Myanmar's NCA), but also the roles of political parties and civil society actors must be taken into account. Given the wide range of issues involved in decades of armed conflict, it will be necessary to undertake multiple dialogues at various levels. How can these be managed in a manner which can articulate and achieve outcomes in an acceptable and practically workable manner?

     Then, the status of the talks must be clarified. Assuming some agreement can be reached on key issues, what will be the legal and constitutional status of such political outcomes?

     Finally, the importance of fiscal autonomy for local governing bodies must be recognized. Without this, political autonomy will have limited significance and could become a source of grievance. A related point is the need for clarity between the powers of existing local authorities and those newly created as a result of the peace process.

     Part of the reason why the Philippine legislature did not pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law was because lawmakers were not sufficiently engaged in discussions about it substantively, and at an early stage. In Myanmar, the peace process was initiated by the president and his envoy, Minister Aung Min, assisted by the government-backed Myanmar Peace Center, with only limited engagement on the part of other stakeholders, besides the ethnic armed organizations.

     Initially, the Tatmadaw was only partially engaged in the peace process. Once the military became more fully involved, negotiations became significantly more difficult. The failure of the executive to bring in members of parliament or the main opposition party back then -- the now-ruling National League for Democracy -- meant that there was only limited buy-in from the incoming government. To a significant degree, such limitations were probably unavoidable, given the dynamics in Myanmar. In retrospect, however, it might have been useful to involve a deeper range of actors at an earlier stage.

     In both the Philippines and Myanmar, new governments have the opportunity to consolidate and deepen existing peace processes. It is important to build on the legacy of outgoing regimes, rather than seek to "reinvent the wheel."

Ashley South is a research fellow at the Centre for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University.

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