Ever since the Philippines gained her independence, the young country has been at war with various rebel groups. First, the Hukbalahap or Huks for short.
The Hukbalahap, which stands for Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon (The Nation’s Army Against the Japanese Soldiers), was a communist guerilla movement formed by the peasant farmers of Central Luzon. It was originally formed to fight the Japanese invaders. However, after World War II ended, the Huks continued their guerilla warfare against the Philippine government. Known as theHukbalahap Rebellion, it was defeated through a series of agrarian reforms and military victories by then President Ramon Magsaysay. He created the Economic Development Corps (EDCOR), a resettlement program for landless peasants and Huk rebels who surrendered. It was a tactical victory for Magsaysay who used the Huks’ slogan “Land for the Landless” as his own, establishing homestead settlements in Mindanao for them. He gave each family a carabao and a plow in exchange for their weapons. It worked! It broke the back of the Huk movement and peace was achieved in Central Luzon where the Huks waged their rebellion.
Then came the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). It was founded by Bernabe Buscayno (“Commander Dante”) on March 29, 1969. Maoist-oriented in its strategy of “protracted people’s war,” the NPA was estimated to have 3,200 fighters by the end of 2015. However, the NPA leadership claims that they have more than 15,000 fighters.
In 1992, during the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, the Anti-Subversion Act of 1957 was lifted; however, the NPA continued to operate. It collected “revolutionary tax” from businesses in the areas where they operated. They continue to do so today.
In 2011, peace talks resumed between the government and the CPP, NPA, and the National Democratic Front (NDF). The talks have been going on and off since then.
Last December 5, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a proclamation declaring the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization. He vowed to finish them off during the remainder of his term through 2022.
Incidentally, a “Christmas Truce,” which had been observed by both the NPA and Philippine Army since the 1970s is not going to be observed this year. This is a big setback to the peace process.
In the southern Philippines, there is a different kind of war; various Muslim groups are waging a “war of liberation.” The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its rival the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are the two major Muslim rebel groups.
The MNLF was founded in 1972 as a political organization. It started as a splinter group of the Muslim Independence Movement. In 1996, the MNLF signed a landmark peace agreement with the Philippine government during the presidency of former president Fidel V. Ramos. The peace accord led to the creation of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Peace at last or was it?
The signing of the peace agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government brought about a rift in MNLF leadership. In 1984, the splinter group MILF was established. Peace talks began between the MNLF and the government. But it collapsed in 2008 when the Supreme Court ruled against a preliminary accord that would have expanded the ARMM.
In 2011, the MILF withdrew its demands for independence and instead agreed to pursue “substate” status, similar to a U.S. state. On October 7, 2012, President Benigno Aquino III announced a peace deal with the MILF and declared, “This framework agreement paves the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao.”
But the peace agreement between the government and the MILF did not achieve lasting peace in Mindanao. A smaller group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) led by Ameril Umbra Kato, that broke away from the MILF in 2008, disagreed with the MILF’s acceptance of autonomy rather than full independence, which was what Kato wanted.
On April 14, 2015, Kato died from an illness. Ismael Abubakar took over leadership of the BIFF. BIFF suffered another split, when Ustadz Karialan left and formed another group after disagreement with other BIFF members regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ideology.
Last May, a new group emerged in Mindanao. Founded by the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omar, the Maute group, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, was a radical Islamist group composed of the Maute fighters and former MILF rebels. The group joined forces with the terrorist Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) and attacked Marawi City. The battle of Marawi lasted for five months. It ended with the deaths of the Maute brothers who were killed by government forces during a siege of Marawi. The leader of ASG, Isnilon Hapilon was also killed.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Congress has been trying to pass a bill known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which seeks to establish a proposed new autonomous political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR). It would replace the current ARMM.
BBL is an organic act that would provide for the basic structure of government for the BAR. It would enact the agreements set forth in the peace agreement signed between the MILF and the government of former president Benign Aquino III in 2014.
If Congress passes BBL and is signed by President Duterte into law, it would legalize the existence of MILF, which would give it political preeminence among the other rebel groups in Mindanao including the MNLF, BIFF, ASG, and the newly organized Justice for Islamic Movement (JIM).
Under the draft BBL, the BAR government shall have the primary responsibility over public order and safety, while the Central Government with its AFP and PNP would be responsible for safeguarding the BAR’s external security. That means that once MILF takes over control of the BAR government including its own police force, it would exercise police power over the other rebel groups. If that happens, it would surely shatter any prospect for peace. It would be back to the trenches for all of the rebel groups. And once again, the Central Government would be caught in the middle of fraternal warfare among the Muslim rebels.
Price of peace
In my column, “The price of peace in Mindanao” (August 19, 2011), I wrote: “The ideal thing to do is to expand the FPA [Final Peace Agreement signed between the government and MNLF in 1996] to include MILF. But this is easier said than done. However, if [President] Aquino is going to pursue a separate treaty with MILF without involving – or consulting – MNLF, the political dynamics in Mindanao could dramatically change.
“The President’s meeting with the MILF chairman was indeed a great leap forward. However, it remains to be seen what direction it would take? Will it lead to the creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro “sub-state,” exclusive of MNLF and separate from ARMM? Or, will it unify MILF and MNLF under the aegis of ARMM… and bring peace to Mindanao?”
Same issues, different players
It’s interesting to note that the issues faced by Aquino in 2011 mirror the issues faced by Duterte this year. While there are other issues that need to be worked out, none is more important than bringing the various rebel groups to the table and fashion an entity that would satisfy all the groups’ concerns. Failure to do so could crush any hope for achieving peace in Mindanao. The challenge is: How could Duterte bring all the rebel groups to the table and unify them under the umbrella of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region? It’s s tall order, but nothing short of it would achieve peace.
Peace is like a tree. You plant the seed on fertile ground and nurture it. You fertilize and water it. It may take years for the tree to bear fruit. But when it starts to bear fruit, you spray it with pesticide to protect it from harmful pests. And like a tree, give peace a chance to grow.