"The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process", crisisgroup

The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process

Asia Report N°225 15 May 2012

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Politics in the Sulu archipelago could be an unforeseen stumbling block for a negotiated peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines. So far the presumed spoilers have been Christian settlers, conservative nationalists, and recalcitrant members of the other insurgency in the Muslim south, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The islands off the coast of Mindanao have been all but forgotten. But the provincial governors of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, although Muslim, are wary of any agreement that would allow the MILF, dominated by ethnically distinct groups from Central Mindanao, to extend its sway and jeopardise the patronage system they enjoy with Manila. The challenge for the government of President Benigno Aquino III is to find a way to offer more meaningful autonomy to the MILF and overcome differences between the MILF and MNLF without alienating powerful clan leaders from the Sulu archipelago with a capacity to make trouble.

The Aquino government’s peace strategy is based on the principle of convergence, bringing three components together: a peace agreement with the MILF; reform of the dysfunctional government of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which includes the three archipelagic provinces – Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi – as well as Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in Central Mindanao; and review of the 1996 final peace agreement with the MNLF. The latter two components are more acceptable to the elite of the archipelago than the first. They see ARMM as a corrupt and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and administration between them and Manila but as long as they have equal access to leadership positions, they are willing to try reform. From their perspective, the danger of a peace agreement with the MILF is that it would ultimately replace ARMM with a new, expanded, more powerful regional government that would favour Central Mindanao, the MILF’s stronghold, and its clans, over the archipelago and its politicians. At stake is access to power and money.

The governors from the archipelago need to be accommodated because the provinces of Sulu and Basilan are particularly prone to conflict. They are home to the violent extremists of the Abu Sayyaf Group, armed elements of the MNLF that engage in periodic clashes with the government, and a handful of foreign jihadis. Sprawling extended families, often with private armies and ill-gotten wealth, dominate local politics, controlling towns and even provinces for years by securing the victory of their relatives in local elections. The interests of these politicians sometimes, but not always, overlap with the non-state armed actors.

Basilan poses less of a problem to the MILF peace process than the province of Sulu. President Aquino enjoys a good relationship with one of Basilan’s clans, the Hatamans, but this has increased tensions with a rival family, the Akbars. Because Manila is partnering with the Hatamans to carry out its convergence strategy, it is empowering them at the expense of their rivals. This could raise the risk of violence between the two clans. But these dynamics are local and are unlikely to spill over in ways that could disrupt negotiations.

Sulu provincial governor Sakur Tan is more of a problem. In response to Manila’s overtures, Tan has styled himself as the leader of the five provincial governors within ARMM. He is backing governance reform and the review of the MNLF agreement, while questioning whether a deal with the MILF will benefit the archipelago. The government hopes to conclude negotiations with the MILF by the end of 2012. In anticipation, traditional politicians are manoeuvring to protect their interests ahead of the 2013 mid-term polls. The provincial governors from the islands and the elite of Sulu province seem to believe their interests are best served by aligning themselves with Governor Tan, who is sceptical of a peace agreement that gives too much power to the MILF. If this alliance holds, the political landscape within ARMM may be less favourable to a negotiated peace and divisions among the Bangsamoro, as the Muslims of the southern Philippines are known, may become deeper than ever.

The clan-based politicians in the archipelago are among the most important players in the Muslim south. Despite the ties many of them have to non-state armed groups, Manila needs their help in addressing the chronic security problems in the islands. Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are also an integral part of the territory demanded by the MILF, and the scepticism of their governors towards the peace process undermines its objective: to grant the Bangsamoro true autonomy once and for all.

Jakarta/Brussels, 15 May 2012