A long overdue referendum to ratify the autonomy of the Bangsamoro will be held on Monday and all eyes are on what would become of the region.
The Bangsamoro region is to go to the polls in a referendum that will be held on January 21 to grant long-awaited autonomy to Filipino Muslims living on an island south of the Philippines.
The Philippine Muslims, or Bangsamoro, in Mindanao, with a total population of about four to five million people, constitute a nationality that is both culturally distinct from and historically older than the Filipino nationality.
There was a historic peace breakthrough in 2012 when a preliminary peace agreement was signed between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government, known as the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
The agreement set out a roadmap for a political transition, envisioning the creation of a new self-governing region in Muslim-dominated areas of Western Mindanao, called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.
When Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippines’ presidency in 2016, his administration announced that the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) bill would be shelved instead of being taken up by the 17th Congress of the Philippines.
However, in 2018, the proposal was revived as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), a revised version of the BBL. After being ratified by congress, the bill was signed into law. A referendum will be held next Monday to ratify the law and establish an autonomous region.
Brief history of the region
In 1989, the US took over the control of Philippines from the Spanish monarchy, which had occupied the nation since the 16th Century. Under US control, the Bangsamoro people were deprived of their freedom. After the Americans left the country in 1946, the new Manila government, which was dominated by Christians, imposed a Christian settlement policy, pushing the Muslims of Bangsmaro to the margins of society.
To recognise the region's independence, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1972 under the leadership of Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat from the Muslim community.
When Misuari, then MNLF leader, signed the Tripoli Agreement with the Philippines government in 1976, the group was divided into two.
However, Salamat said the Bangsamoro Muslims deserved independence and the deal’s conditions were a deception. He declared that the community had to continue negotiations until they achieved freedom.
Announcing their aim as “an independent state in southern Philippines”, Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1976, breaking away from the MNLF.
Manila government fails to negotiate
The negotiations were disrupted as the country failed to implement the deal at a sufficient level for the region’s independence leaders and reduced the number of towns within the scope of the agreement.
Despite a number of negotiations between the Manila government, the MNLF, and the MILF after the 1980s, no agreement could be reached.
Meanwhile, the Moro region had some gains from the negotiations, such as the recognition of some religious holidays, Islamic (interest free) banking and the establishment of a Muslim Affairs Ministry.
In 1997, the government and the MILF initiated ceasefire talks, while the MNLF became weaker. The MILF officially dropped its demand for full independence in 2010, seeking regional autonomy instead.
In 2012, then President Benigno Aquino III and MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB).
The FAB constituted a roadmap to a final settlement which would allow for an autonomous region administered by minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Catholic country.
The MILF and the Manila government also signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014, paving the way for the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
The 2014 deal brought to a close 17 years of negotiations and ended a decades-old armed conflict in the country’s south.
President Rodrigo Duterte speeds up the process
Moro peace talks gained great significance when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016.
Duterte pledged during election campaigns to end the conflict in the region.
In 2017, the MILF submitted the draft BOL, which was prepared within the scope of the peace agreement reached with the government, to Duterte.
This draft law was the latest significant attempt between the parties to end to nearly half-century conflict that has left more than 120,000 people dead and hampered development in the region.
The same year in May, the congress approved the law, which provided for an autonomous region on Mindanao island. On July 26, 2018, Duterte signed the landmark BOL.
In July 2018, Duterte presented the law to the MILF’s Ebrahim during a ceremony held at Malacanang Palace, where he said they ended decades-long conflict.
While the establishment of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the result of negotiations between the government and the MNLF, the Bangsamoro Organic Law has been forged as a result of the peace agreement that the MILF signed with former President Benigno Aquino III in 2014.
Bangsamoro Organic Law
The BOL, signed by Duterte, will increase the legal and economic gains of Muslims in the region.
With the new Bangsamoro government established, courts of Islamic Law will be opened in the region and regional authorities will hand over jurisdiction to the Bangsamoro government from the Manila government.
In return, MILF will decommission 40,000 combatants of its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAFF) when the BOL is ratified.