The Philippine island of Mindanao held a referendum on Monday to establish an autonomous region governed by the largely Muslim residents.
More specifically, the prospective Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARRM) would be controlled by a terrorist organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF has been fighting an insurgency against the Philippine government for decades, killing at least 150,000 people along the way. The autonomous region was proposed during peace negotiations between the Islamist group and the government of the majority-Catholic Philippines.
The MILF seeks to create an Islamic state very much in the “Islamic State” sense; they are Islamic fundamentalists who parted ways with a more secular separatist group long ago. They fought against ISIS in an Islamist power struggle after ISIS recruited their rivals in the Abu Sayyaf organization, winning enough with from the Philippine government to move the autonomy referendum forward. Joining forces with the government against ISIS also helped the MILF subdue or eliminate various splinter groups that favored the Islamic State. The most notorious of those splinter cells, the Maute Group, provoked a crisis by seizing the city of Marawi and holding it for five months in 2017.
The official result of the referendum is not expected until January 26, but the MILF is outspokenly confident of victory and is already reaching out to other Islamist governments like Turkey for support.
A recent survey revealed 76 percent of Muslims across the Philippines believe the MILF is capable of responsibly governing an autonomous region. Turnout for the referendum was heavy and observers expect the autonomy measure to pass with overwhelming approval. If it does, a second referendum is planned for February 6 to invite several surrounding towns and provinces to join the BARRM.
The MILF’s brand of Islam is considerably more strict than what most Philippine Muslims practice, but the insurgent group has developed good relations with the public and offers an opportunity for peace on an island shredded by factional infighting for generations.
Counterinsurgency expert Joseph Franco told Deutsche Welle on Tuesday that he doubts the MILF can deliver the peace it promises since it will not disarm, its rivals will not accept the peace deal with Manila, and bloody warfare for control of the new autonomous region will most likely erupt.
Franco offered a mixed prognosis for non-Muslims living in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao:
It’s a tricky question. There is already scaremongering in the Christian-dominated cities of the prospective Bangsamoro. Lots of rumors and misconceptions are circulating, for instance, that they would be subjected to Shariah.
It doesn’t help that some local MILF commanders are exercising thuggish tactics to promote the Yes vote. On the other hand, the No vote also had some thuggish partisans on their side. So it’s still uncertain what the BOL holds for future Muslim-Christian relations.
And we shouldn’t forget the “lumad” or the indigenous groups of Mindanao. They have always been sidelined when Mindanao’s future is discussed. How the BOL is operationalized would probably affect how the lumad view themselves. If they are cut out, then I would not be surprised if they build their own national liberation/secessionist bloc. It would be tragic, considering the lumad were there before Muslims and Christians came in.
The MILF is not exactly shy about its enthusiasm for sharia law, but the Bangsamoro deal is supposed to include legal protection for religious freedom and only Muslims will be subject to sharia courts.
The autonomy deal actually predates the current Philippine administration, but President Rodrigo Duterte made his name as a mayor in Mindanao and is eager for a diplomatic victory on the island. The more cynical interpretation is that Duterte wants to be rid of Mindanao, which has horrific levels of poverty and employment to go along with the constant political violence and organized crime activity, and has little to lose by giving the MILF a chance to pacify the region.
As Channel News Asia reported when the autonomy deal picked up steam in July, Duterte probably will not be disappointed if the MILF fails to disarm as promised, provided they turn their guns on the right targets:
“If the Bangsamoro government is formed, it will be more difficult for pro-IS groups to carry out their violent activities because MILF will utilize their existing armed forces to go after them,” said Prof Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“That’s MILF’s promise to the Philippine government.”
He added: “The MILF has been working with the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) to run after pro-IS groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Abu Dar Group.”
MILF has publicly declared its opposition to IS, and last year started working with the Philippine military to fight pro-IS groups in Mindanao.
Prof Banlaoi, however, cautioned that threats to peace will remain after the MILF ends their struggle against the Philippine government.
“There are several threats: The BIFF in central Mindanao; the Abu Dar Group, composed of remnants of the pro-IS Maute group, in Lanao provinces; and the ASG in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces,” he said.
There is a great deal of money to be made in Mindanao if peace can finally be achieved. The Mindanao Development Authority estimated on Thursday that economic growth of up to 8 percent is possible if agriculture, industrial projects, infrastructure, real estate deals, and natural resources development can proceed in a more secure environment. Significantly enhanced growth has already been recorded in parts of the island that gained limited autonomy last year. Hopes for the stability of the BARRM may hinge on the MILF deciding not to ruin a good thing with oppressive measures once the tax revenue starts rolling in.