What Delayed Elections Mean for the Southern Philippines’ Bangsamoro Peace Process

The term of the interim Bangsamoro Transition Authority has been extended by three years, delaying parliamentary elections from 2022 to 2025. (Image Source: BARMM Parliament)

On 28 October, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte signed a law postponing the first parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) from 2022 to 2025. The bill had been approved by lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives in September, after a year of campaigning from the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA)—fronted by the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—to extend their mandate to govern. Interim Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in power since the region was formed in 2019, had argued that more time was needed to strengthen democratic institutions after setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet delaying the elections is a risky move in a region plagued by separatist violence for generations. The process of decommissioning MILF rebels and their weapons is not yet complete, whilst Islamist militant groups remain a threat, despite being on the back foot and confined to operating in remote marshlands and outlying islands—for now at least. It is within this fragile peace, that the BTA strives to develop accountable governance and nurture a thriving democratic culture in the BARMM, while avoiding the failings of a past experiment in self-governance—the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which from 1989–2019 was sunk by corruption and mismanagement.

Elections delayed

An extension to the Bangsamoro transition, initially set to end with elections in May 2022—at which time the BTA’s mandate would expire, and elected lawmakers would take office—was first proposed a year ago, with President Duterte supporting Ebrahim’s proposal to move the polls to 2025. Despite initial legislative progress and the passing of priority laws on forming a civil service and administering the BARMM, responding to COVID-19 came to dominate the BTA’s agenda and led to louder calls for an extension as the passage of other key laws on elections, revenue, and local politics were delayed.

Any extension required approval by Manila. After being debated for months by three committees of the Philippine House of Representatives—on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, Muslim Affairs, and on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity—the law to extend the Bangsamoro transition passed in the Senate on 6 September and in the House on 15 September, where 187 lawmakers voted in favor, with none  against and no abstentions. The bill amended Republic Act 11054 known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the legislation which had encoded the peace deal with the MILF and created the BARMM.

Approximately 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are set to disarm in exchange for livelihood support. The process was delayed amid COVID-19. (Image Source: Mark Navales)

It means President Duterte can now appoint 80 new members of the BTA to assume office after the term of the current transitional authority expires next May. The appointees will govern the BARMM for a three-year term until the rescheduled 2025 polls. However, a provision of the BOL granting the MILF leadership of the region stays in place, meaning 41 of the BTA lawmakers must be members of the MILF, and will be nominated by its central committee. During a Senate debate on the law, it was suggested that the five BARMM provincial governors will play a role in selecting the other 39 places.

Rebel disarmament

Tied to the peace deal is the disarmament of MILF rebels. This process is not governed by the BOL, but by a precursor accord—the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). It was expected that the entire 40,000-strong contingent of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) would be demobilized by mid-2022. By March 2020, the first two phases were complete, with 12,145 rebels demobilized and 2,175 weapons turned in. The pace then slowed to a trickle as COVID-19 arrived in the Philippines, with only another 1,500 fighters processed since. Demobilized fighters received initial cash handouts, but wider livelihood support programs have yet to be fully delivered.

Decommissioning the remainder of the rebels will be crucial to securing peace. On 8 November, the third phase of decommissioning resumed at the Old Capitol building in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province, one of five “assembly and processing sites” to open near former MILF camps. Strict COVID-19 protocols and swab-testing overseen by the BARMM Ministry of Health is in place. Phase three of the process, overseen by the Turkish-led International Decommissioning Body (IDB), will demobilize 14,000 BIAF members—7,000 by the end of January, and the remainder in the first months of 2022.

Militants fading

Not all combatants in Mindanao are intent on giving up their arms. Radical groups which splintered from the MILF and its precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), are still active. Though with the majority of the BARMM’s 4.5 million residents supportive of the BTA these rogue elements are under increasing pressure. In central Maguindanao, at the heart of the new autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) face bombardment by the Philippine military. Over two days in late-September, 16 BIFF militants hiding-out in marshlands in Shariff Saydona Mustapha were killed by artillery fire and airstrikes, with the rebels providing little match for Philippine forces.  

Islamist militant networks in the BARMM are declining in strength. Remnants in Maguindanao and Sulu face aerial bombardment by the Philippine military. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008 due to dissatisfaction over the peace negotiations with Manila, but its influence within local communities is fading. The BIFF’s three factions—led by Ustadz Karialan, Ismail Abubakar, and Abu Turaife—have become isolated and marginalized, with members split over a past pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims there are just a few hundred BIFF rebels remaining and has pledged an intensified campaign.    

On the outer edges of the BARMM in northern Lanao and the Sulu islands, other militants persist in smaller numbers from the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf. These groups, aligned to the Islamic State, have been unable to carry-out major attacks for some years—such as the 2016 Davao night market bombings, the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi, and the cathedral blasts in Jolo in January 2019, which killed scores of civilians, but ultimately failed to disrupt the government-MILF peace process.

The AFP struck a major blow just weeks ago by killing senior Islamic State leader Salahuddin Hassan during a raid in Talayan. It is also likely that notorious Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was killed in clashes with troops last year, but no body has been recovered and his fate remains unclear.

Building livelihoods

Governance and security are the immediate priorities for the BTA, but securing a long-term peace will be impossible without economic growth and prosperity in the BARMM. It is crucial that voters see progress and opportunity to prevent a slide back toward conflict. The BARMM’s economy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with growth falling by 1.9% in 2020, yet the impact was lower than at the national level with the Philippines as a whole seeing a drop of 9.6%. The BTA is pinning its hopes on a rebound, with Chief Minister Ebrahim declaring the region “open for business” and calling on rich Islamic nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia to invest in the BARMM.

The region has huge potential for growth in areas like Halal products and Islamic banking, and can also count on agriculture and natural resources for revenue. Entrepreneurship is reported to be on the rise, but amidst all this the key will be securing livelihoods for ex-combatants and supporters of the Moro separatist struggle. Not all BIAF fighters supported the delay to the BARMM elections, and some have complained of “technocrats” receiving benefits in power while ex-rebels lack job security. That remains the big question facing the MILF leadership: how to ensure the transition from guerilla warfare to civilian life also works for rank-and-file fighters. They now have until 2025 to figure it out.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Delays to Rebuilding Marawi Threaten a Fragile Peace in the Bangsamoro

Three years after the siege, more than 120,000 residents of Marawi remain displaced across the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Three years ago, the siege of Marawi was in full-swing. A failed attempt by Philippine troops to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, on 23 May 2017, had prompted a militant uprising which would last until October. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers were pitted against ISIS-affiliated jihadis led by Hapilon and his co-conspirators – the Maute brothers – in fierce street-to-street urban warfare.

By the time the battles ended, 1,200 – including 920 militants and 168 AFP soldiers – had been killed. 350,000 residents had fled their homes, unable to return to a city left in a state of ruin. Near-daily IED blasts and government airstrikes had flattened the central Banggolo district, where AFP bomb-disposal experts have since been working to clear debris and safely locate and detonate unexploded ordnance.

The last-known bomb was destroyed in October. Yet construction work has been slow to pick-up pace, even as 126,000 evacuees still reside in transitory shelters or with relatives across the Lanao provinces. Rebuilding Marawi, known as the ‘Islamic city’ with its symbolic Grand Mosque and majority-Maranao Muslim population, will be key to peace in a region afflicted by separatist conflict since the mid-1970s.

Last year, a peace accord was finalized between Manila and the region’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending hostilities and forging a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of the region last March signalled the arrival of self-governance, and a chance to address the grievances of western Mindanao’s Moro Muslim population.

Since then, violence perpetrated by the ISIS-aligned groups whom laid siege to Marawi has dwindled. Yet amid the perceived slow pace of reconstruction, further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, local frustrations are rising. A ‘growing sense of despair’ fuelled by a ‘lack of urgency’ in rebuilding the city is now raising fears of a fertile recruitment pool for jihadi groups intent on spoiling the peace process.

Reconstruction efforts directed by Manila

Manila has dismissed such criticism. In the aftermath of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte created Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), headed by Housing Secretary and former AFP general Eduardo del Rosario, to oversee rehabilitation efforts. A lengthy operation to clear unexploded ordnance from the former ‘Main Battle Area’ got underway in 2018 and was completed late last year, paving the way for the reconstruction of the worst-hit Banggolo district. The area was the city’s bustling commercial hub.

But from the start, plans have faltered. The initial plan, to give the entire task of rebuilding Marawi to a Chinese-led consortium, collapsed amid a political tussle over future visions for the city. Instead, the work was split into multiple projects, with government departments responsible for public works and highways, energy, health and education to award separate contracts to firms to build roads, electricity infrastructure, communications networks and drainage systems, as well as new hospitals and schools.

The role of TFBM to co-ordinate the projects within an overarching plan is inevitably a mammoth task. The task force aims to fully rebuild all public infrastructure and utilities by late-2021 before residents are permitted to return to Banggolo; although in some areas people have been able to start repairing damaged homes. Residents must obtain a building permit, by providing proof-of-ownership alongside a design plan, yet many are concerned that in undocumented cases their homes might be demolished.

COVID-19 setback compounds past delays

The government-led rebuilding of Banggolo looked set to pick-up pace earlier this year, but movement restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19 have delayed work by several months. From 20 March, cities and provinces in the BARMM began to be placed under ‘enhanced community quarantine’, before the whole region transitioned to ‘general community quarantine’ on 1 May. Yet lockdown measures were eased on 16 May after the BARMM was declared ‘low-risk’. The BARMM has seen 100 cases and four deaths from COVID-19 – far fewer than other parts of the Philippines, despite its weak health system.

Bombing of Marawi City
The five-month siege, in 2017, destroyed the central Banggolo district, which witnessed airstrikes and daily gun battles between AFP troops and ISIS-linked militants. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

While noting the impact of COVID-19 in restricting the movement of labour and materials, TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario revealed early in June that preparatory work has continued, allowing firms to ‘go full blast’ in July. He said in a press release that TFBM remains committed to the 31 December 2021 deadline, and has urged project contractors to ‘work 12 hours a day’, or ‘double time’ if necessary. In further comments, del Rosario said he aims to ‘prove government critics wrong’, and labelled a claim of ‘inaction and neglect’ alleged in May by vice-President Leni Robredo as ‘very inaccurate and unfair’.

TFBM has highlighted the reconstruction of the Mapandi Bridge – a key entry-point into the city centre that witnessed fierce clashes at the height of the siege – and work to repair the 18.97km transcentral Marawi road as evidence that progress is being made. Government support for 25,300 still-displaced families is also seen via the provision of rice, cash assistance, livelihood training and tractors for local farming co-operatives. Yet despite the help available, displaced residents living in cramped conditions in transitory shelters, vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19, are increasingly desperate to return home.

Frustration rising among long-term evacuees

Anger among evacuees though, pre-dates the untimely arrival COVID-19. Back in November, Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a civil society organization founded to monitor the rebuilding of the city, issued a strongly-worded statement after attending a public Congressional hearing on the issue. MRCW criticized a lack of transparency and accountability in the Manila-led rebuilding process, labelling it a ‘total mess’. Aside from lamenting the slow-pace of construction work, MRCW criticized the delayed passage of a compensation bill, alleging that Maranaos are being ‘treated as second class citizens’ and were blamed by the authorities for the incursion of ISIS that led to the five-month siege. The group also asked Duterte to reverse a controversial decision to build a new AFP camp in Marawi.

Dissenting voices have also emerged from those in power, at the local and national level. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, interim Chief Minister of the BARMM and former head of the MILF, who in his position must tread a fine line between BARMM citizens and Manila, has sought to reassure Maranao Muslims that the government remains committed to the project while acknowledging that the job is ‘far from over’. Other BARMM lawmakers have been more vocal and called for TFBM’s leadership to be overhauled. Mindanaoan politician Amihilda Sangcopan has asked the agency to hold a ‘State of Marawi Address’ to tell evacuees when they can ‘go home to their beloved city’, while detained opposition senator Leila de Lima has lamented the ‘suffering, worsening poverty and dispossession’ of Marawi’s ex-residents.

ISIS recruitment and the BARMM peace process

The effort to re-start construction following the COVID-19 disruption comes a year into the three-year BARMM transition period; designed to implement the peace deal and secure a lasting peace in Moro-majority western Mindanao. The MILF is currently disarming its 30,000 fighters, while ordinary citizens have placed their hopes on the new autonomous region to end decades of large-scale armed conflict.

Marawi, known as the Philippines’ Islamic city, is of high symbolic importance to Moro Muslims. Rebuilding mosques destroyed during the siege will assist peace efforts. (Image Source: Suhayla)

Yet radical groups – born out of the Moro separatist rebellion and later inspired by ISIS ideology – are still active and aim to upend the peace process. Abu Sayyaf pose a risk in the Sulu islands to the west, while the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters remain present in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Further delay in rebuilding Marawi could assist in their recruitment. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released in February, noted that ‘public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to re-gain a foothold in the city’, warning that a negative public perception of efforts to rehabilitate the city had likely ‘reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment’.

The AFP has reported recruitment by the Maute group in towns around Lake Lanao, on which Marawi sits, in the three years since the siege, with the militants offering a financial incentive for young men to join-up. Although the strength of militant groups has undoubtedly declined since the height of the siege, when the Mautes and their allies deployed 1,000 fighters in the city, such reports drive concern that a failure to rebuild swiftly could create an atmosphere conducive to the terrorists’ bolstering their ranks – by targeting displaced residents seeking a way out of homelessness, joblessness and poverty.

‘I want to finish the projects during my time’

The BARMM, in which the hopes of Mindanao’s Moro Muslims are invested, has little control over the reconstruction of Marawi. The fate of the city lies with the central government in Manila. Earlier this year, after releasing funds for construction in the Banggolo district to begin, Duterte remarked: ‘I want to finish the projects during my time’. Despite confirming he would go ahead with plans to build a new army base in the city, he said ‘I am not after the Maranao’, arguing it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the siege. Duterte’s term ends in 2022, around six months after TFBM’s deadline to rebuild the city.

If the deadline is not met and reconstruction efforts drag on for years, Marawi risks becoming another ‘open wound’ driving recruitment to rebel groups unsatisfied with the peace process. Former chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – the failed predecessor to the BARMM – Mujiv Hataman, has warned that a failure to rebuild in good time could lead Marawi to become the modern equivalent to the 1968 Jabidah massacre, which drove recruitment for the old Moro separatist groups. In the current context, as ISIS allies look to rebound, such a scenario would pose a huge security risk.

With the BARMM in place and the MILF disarming, Manila could not have a bigger incentive to deliver on its promise to rebuild Marawi – and ensure the peace gains made since the siege are not reversed.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.