One of the finest things that can happen in the Philippines in the months ahead is the creation of a new autonomous region called Bangsamoro in the southern part of the country. That will be the fruit of a peace process recently launched by the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
If the government of the projected autonomous region will faithfully serve the needs and aspirations of the people of southern Philippines (not only the Muslims but also the Christians and the Lumads or indigenous people), it will be the culmination of a long and tortuous journey toward peace that has already taken more than four decades.
It started in KL
Many think this journey started with the Libya-mediated negotiations toward the signing of the Tripoli Agreement between the Marcos government and an undivided MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) in 1976. In fact, the quest for peace in southern Philippines started two years earlier, not in the Middle East but in the Asean region, and largely in the spirit of Asean solidarity. It happened at the Fifth Islamic Foreign Ministers' Conference of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June 1974.
At that time, the still undivided MNLF was in control of a number of towns in Cotabato and Sulu. It was being robustly supported by Libya in terms of funds, arms and military training. It also enjoyed strong political and moral backing from Saudi Arabia and other Arab members of the OIC.
The host of the conference was the government that initially trained MNLF cadres in guerrilla warfare and armed and funded the front's first fighting units. There were still MNLF fighters undergoing training in Sabah at that time. On top of that, the secretary general of the OIC was Tunku Abdul Rahman, who tangled with the Philippine government on the question of sovereignty over Sabah in the early 1960s.
What more could Nur Misuari and the MNLF ask for? A wide window of opportunity had been opened for the MNLF to make a bid for full membership in the OIC as an independent Islamic State. And Nur Misuari seized the opportunity.
Enter Adam Malik
He could have succeeded, too. But a five-foot-four-inch tall giant of international affairs rose and stood in his way. Adam Malik, then the foreign minister of Indonesia, had recently completed his tenure as president of the UN General Assembly. As the one in charge of foreign affairs in the triumvirate that ruled Indonesia after the fall of President Sukarno in 1965, he was a key player in the founding of Asean in August 1967. He was also a popular figure in the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), to which all members of the OIC belonged.
Against the MNLF's bid for OIC membership, he leveraged Indonesia's clout as the world's largest Muslim nation and his own immense personal prestige. He warned that by recognizing the MNLF as an Islamic state, thus violating the sovereignty of the Philippines, the OIC would only make this armed conflict in the heart of Southeast Asia even more ferocious and intractable. This, he said, would be counterproductive for regional and global security.
He appealed for a just solution "within the framework of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines." He urged the Philippines and Malaysia, both co-founders of Asean with Indonesia, to focus on promoting Asean solidarity rather than "parochial national interests." They should not risk the fragile unity of Asean just seven years after it was founded, he said.
Then he personally sought the Arab foreign ministers and talked them into changing their minds about granting OIC membership to the MNLF. By the time the conference drew to a close the MNLF bid for OIC membership was dead on the shelf.
But the most important outcome of the conference was the OIC's strong proposition that the Philippine government and the MNLF settle their dispute peacefully within the framework of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity.
A framework Deal in Tripoli
That, precisely, was what the Philippine government wanted: a chance at a peaceful resolution of the Moro problem that would bring it into the good graces of the Middle Eastern countries that controlled the Philippines’ supply of oil. On the other hand, Nur Misuari did not want to negotiate, but if he did not accommodate the wishes of his Middle Eastern supporters, the MNLF would be isolated from the Muslim world.
So after a delay of more than two years, he sat down to negotiate with the Philippine government in late 1976 in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The result was a framework agreement named after that city.
The Tripoli Agreement basically granted autonomy to the Muslims of southern Philippines within the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines. During the administrations of President Marcos and his successor, Corazon C. Aquino, Nur Misuari made many demands based on the provisions of the Tripoli Agreement, but these could not be realized as the relevant electorate rejected most of them whenever the necessary constitutional process was held to ratify those demands.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of the Tripoli Agreement, the administration of President Corazon C. Aquino reached a cease-fire deal with the MNLF. That cease-fire proved to be durable.
Building on this ceasefire, the succeeding administration of President Fidel V. Ramos was able to sign a Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with the MNLF, in a process that entailed mediation by Indonesia on behalf of the OIC.
A Separate Peace
Even while the government and the MNLF were negotiating, the beginnings of a separate peace process with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) were already taking place. This separate process waxed and waned over the years, interspersed by such episodes as the total war that President Joseph Estrada waged against the MILF. Estrada's successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, reached a deal with the MILF, which the Supreme Court, however, struck down as unconstitutional.
In 2014 President Benigno S. Aquino III was able to conclude with the MILF a Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) but its enabling legislation, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), has since languished in Congress because of perceived constitutional infirmities.
The New Peace Process
Now this new process under President Duterte promises to combine all the virtues of earlier peace agreements between the government and Moro rebel groups and to remove all their infirmities through the work of an enlarged Bangsamoro Transition Commission, in which a wide range of stakeholders are represented. It is such inclusiveness, not evident in earlier agreements, that is the basis of widespread optimism about this new process.
Thus the quest for peace in southern Philippines has been a meandering and erratic journey that has lasted more than 42 years — but it may be nearing its intended destination. Perhaps the journey could have been much shorter but that would have required so much wisdom on the part of government and rebel leaders, which they did not have. The alternative to this journey, however, is unthinkable.
Had the MNLF become a member of the OIC as an Islamic state in 1974, the armed conflict in southern Philippines would have raged more fiercely than the Biafran war in Nigeria (1970) and the Sri Lankan civil war (2009). The Philippine economy would have been crippled by the war costs, its industries mauled by an oil embargo that would have been inflicted by oil-exporting OIC members. The body count on both sides and among civilians would have been much higher and for the people of southern Philippines it would have been hell several times over.
But thanks to Indonesia's Adam Malik and his passion for Asean solidarity that did not happen.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.