The Philippines: Peace talks and autonomy in Mindanao: Number 35

Forum of Federations, Fundacion Gimenez Abad, International IDEA and The Center for Constitutional Transitions are proud to present the 11th Occasional Paper which explores how the Philippines have tried to use governance processes autonomy to solve the north/south challenges.

The Philippines has been wracked by an insurgency in its Muslim south since the early 1970s. A negotiated settlement at last seemed within reach by 2015. Moros, an umbrella term for thirteen ethno-linguistic groups that practice Islam, make up roughly 5 percent of the population in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.1 They are concentrated in two non-contiguous areas: the central portion of Mindanao, the large island in the country’s far south; and in the Sulu archipelago, which stretches from the western tip of Mindanao to Sabah in eastern Malaysia. Moros began mobilizing against the Philippine state in the late 1960s and launched an armed rebellion in 1972. The first of several peace agreements to grant Moros autonomy was signed in 1976 under martial law. The 1987 constitution envisioned a Moro autonomous region within the unitary republic. The government created this region by fiat in 1989 but it had few powers and remained under Manila’s control. The insurgents did not believe it was truly autonomous. As peace talks dragged out, the armed movement splintered and divisions among Moros deepened. The original organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), fractured along ethnic lines in the 1980s, signed a final peace agreement in 1996, and then fragmented further in the early 2000s. The main breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has posed the most serious threat to the Philippine state since then. A settlement looked less likely with the MILF, as negotiations were constrained by autonomy provisions in the constitution. When a breakthrough agreement was reached in 2008, spoilers in Mindanao and Manila fiercely opposed it and the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. Despite these setbacks, the government and the MILF signed new peace agreements in 2012 and 2014.

This Occasional Paper explains why it has taken so long to resolve the territorial cleavage in the southern Philippines even though both sides recognize autonomy as the solution. Political interests in Mindanao and in Manila have repeatedly stood in the way, even while the 1987 constitution made autonomy possible. A major constraint has been procedural: to create a Moro autonomous region, the constitution requires legislation in Congress and a plebiscite in affected areas. This two-step process has allowed opponents of autonomy to block its implementation or to limit the territory and powers of such a region.