Prospects of Attaining Peace under the Duterte Administration

Interview with Al Haj Murad, Chairman, MILF

At MILF Camp Darapanan, September 3, 2016

By Masako Ishii, Professor, Rikkyo University

On July 18, 2016, President Duterte approved “The Bangsamoro Peace and Development Roadmap,” which reflects the two simultaneous tracks of federalism and the new enabling law for the Bangsamoro. What are the prospects of attaining peace under the new administration? Masako Ishii interviewed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.

Lessons Learned from the Non-Passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)

Q How would you utilize the lessons learned from the non-passage of the BBL under the previous administration?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

One of the lessons we have learned is that we need to strengthen the advocacy of the law. The biggest criticism against the BBL was caused by the lack of knowledge on the objective of this agreement.

Second, as indicated by the Mamasapano incident, which was capitalized by the spoilers of the BBL, we need to have in place stronger measures in order to ensure that such incidents will not happen again, especially at a time when the peace process has reached a crucial point.

The Special Action Force (SAF), which encountered with the MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano, was a newly deployed external group comprising individuals who were not familiar with the situation or terrain.

Therefore, we are coordinating closely with the new administration regarding the anti-drug operation since the group members are also operating in rural areas that are unfamiliar to them. A meeting aiming to strengthen the coordination mechanism has already been held.

Q Aside from the joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), are you going to establish a new coordination mechanism that caters especially to the anti-drug operation?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

We will try to review the term of reference of both the CCCH and AHJAG and see if we can expand it.

Q Though you mentioned that there was a lack of advocacy, it is true that you had also conducted many public consultations. Do you mean to say that the advocacy was lacking on the ground or among the legislators?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

It is both. Another point that is worth considering is the inclusivity of the peace process. We have agreed with the new administration on the expansion of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) to include other players.

Q According to the new roadmap, the renewed BTC is suggested to include representatives from the MILF, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), indigenous peoples, the sultanates, the Local Government Unites (LGUs), and other sectors. Would you agree that its members should be more diversified?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

Yes. Although the identification of the members is in the hands of the government, we consider it important to include all the groups.

Q Are you going to include MNLF members in the BTC as MILF appointees?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

No, we cannot do that because we have to maintain our majority in the BTC. But, the MNLF has agreed to being included in the government’s side.

The Convergence of the Peace Agreements of the MNLF and MILF

Q You have organized a Technical Working Group (TWG) to converge the MNLF’s 1996 Final Peace Agreement and MILF’s Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). How would you converge the aspect of territory as the MNLF aspires to establish an autonomous government in the original 13 provinces and 9 cities stated in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

As far as the territory is concerned, I think convergence is possible because the original draft of the BBL has a provision for the expansion of territory. It is mentioned that the areas that are contiguous and outside the core territory may opt at anytime to be part of the territory upon petition of at least 10 percent of the registered voters and approved by a majority of qualified voters cast in a plebiscite.

The only difference is whether we can attain the objective immediately or gradually. For example, we can gradually include those contiguous provinces into the territory. It is simply a matter of how we achieve the objective, and I think the objective of the MNLF is the same as that of ours. If we give a chance to the people in this area, they will decide by themselves.

The TWG is functioning already; but, it is still limited to inviting the MNLF Sema group, while we are inviting other groups, as well. We hope that we can forward the final convergence of the agreements to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) since it is the OIC that can be effective in converging the agreements, especially through the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum (BCF).

Q The OIC played a crucial role when the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was active. Can you still rely on the OIC’s facilitation?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

The OIC is still active. On August 17, I met Secretary-General Mr. Iyad Amin Madani in Kuala Lumpur. He was very keen to promote the convergence, and he opined that we must strengthen the BCF.

Q Is there a hope that the OIC will invite Misuari?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

In fact, Misuari is already sending his representative to the BCF, although the Secretary-General confided to me that we must still talk to Misuari himself.

Q I feel that there is a growing gap between the Mindanao and Sulu archipelago in terms of their struggles. The official MNLF website criticizes the act of the Philippine and Malaysia governments as “colonialism.” Further, it mentions that the Malaysia would like to change the leadership of the MNLF from a Tausug to a Maguindanao. The Bangsamoro was supposed to be a united group despite ethnic differences; however, its original position seems to have changed.

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

Misuari has a very strong sentiment against Malaysia since he was captured there. But, I think that there is no such sentiment among the people of Sulu islands.

Aside from Misuari, there are some politicians who are trying to promote the two autonomous regions of the Bangsamoro. They want the island provinces to be separated. But, it is clear that these politicians are acting out of self-interest.

Q On the other hand, President Duterte is quoted as having said, “I can give BBL to MILF, and Sulu to Misuari.”

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

Yes, but I think we can converge together.

Prospects under the Duterte Administration

Q The second track of the roadmap concerns federalism. What is your reaction to President Duterte’s statement to have “the BBL as ‘template’ for federalism in other regions”?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

What we are emphasizing to the new administration, and even to President Duterte himself, is that it is important to implement the agreement to solve the problem in the region first.

While we are supportive of the idea of the Philippine government adapting to the federal system, it will not address the problem of the Bangsamoro. First, we have to establish the Bangsamoro government. Subsequently, when the federal system is established, the Bangsamoro government can be enhanced to transform itself from an autonomous government to a state government. As long as the agreement is implemented, we have no objection to the idea of federalism.

Q Do you think that the Duterte administration has the strong political will required to implement the agreements?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

We can see that his popularity is very high, which is why we are trying to push the process as fast as possible. Because what happened under the Aquino III administration was that the BBL was drafted and discussed toward the end of the President’s term and, at the time, his political capital was already dwindling. Therefore, we want to implement the agreements as early as possible while the political capital of President Duterte is still high.

Q Have you worked with Mr. Duterte before he became President? Are you friends with him?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

We know each other, but we have had no collaboration. However, when he was the Mayor of Davao, we had some contact.

Q Do you think it advantageous that the President is from Mindanao?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

I think there are some advantages. He knows that the peace and order situation affects Mindanao more than any other part of the country. He knows that Davao is very much affected by the conflict.

Unlike other leaders in the North, he is not biased against the Moro. He even claims that he is a Moro, as well.

The Role of the International Community

Q My last question is about the role of foreign countries. Unfortunately, the Malaysian peace facilitator Tengku Datu Abdul Ghafar Tengku Bin Mohamad has passed away. Can you expect Malaysia to continue its commitment toward being a facilitator?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

First of all, we have been emphasizing to the new administration that we really need the commitment of the international community. Some say that we do not need the international community anymore because the negotiation has already been completed; but, we do not share this view.

Our view is that the support of the international community is even more necessary during the implementation process because nearly all peace agreements fail during the implementation process. We need to ensure that what has been agreed on the table is translated on the ground, and the international community, alone, is capable of assisting it.

Regarding the commitment of Malaysia in facilitating the peace negotiation, we do not have to worry since they have assured us that they would continue. Moreover, I think they have someone taking over as the peace facilitator

Q What are the advantages of having Malaysia as the facilitator of the peace process?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

As a neighboring country, Malaysia is also affected by the conflict. There are so many migrants in Sabah due to the conflict, and this is the main reason why Malaysia wants to facilitate the peace process.

While the MILF was not interested in resuming negotiation following the all-out war perpetrated by the Estrada administration, President Arroyo approached countries like Indonesia and Brunei with the request to facilitate the negotiation with the MILF. But, none of them responded positively. Hence, the Philippine government talked to Mahathir, who agreed because they knew that they were affected by the conflict.

Q Has the fact that Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country also worked as an advantage for you?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

It’s not the characteristic of the population but the policy of the country that matters.

Q What do you think about the role of Japan?

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

The role of Japan is very important, especially in the socioeconomic development program. We also expect Japan to be involved in some aspects of the political process so as to enhance the popular support for this process.

Q Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim

Thank you very much.