Will there ever be peace in Mindanao?
Some occasional successes have been achieved in the Philippine government’s efforts to bring peace to Mindanao by negotiating with rebels and discontents. But the key to lasting peace seems to hinge not just in peace agreements between the national government and these individual groups, but also political settlements among them. Some call this inclusive peace process.
The world is full of examples of successful conflict resolution efforts that either eventually failed or not completely resolved because of the continued armed struggle of those excluded in the process, or because the supposed settlement is not or perceived to be less than fair to all stakeholders.
The Middle East conflict
One of the most intractable of these is the peace process between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East.
The handshake between Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat in September 1993 witnessed by US President Bill Clinton was historic and remained vivid in the memories of those of us who watched it live on television.
But political violence continued. And this is largely because of the differences among several organizations under the umbrella of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Membership has grown from its four founding members in 1964 to about ten today.
The late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah (“to conquer”) remains the largest of them and controls the West Bank. But a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas, which was founded during the outbreak of Intifada (“uprising”) remains outside the PLO and is in control of Gaza Strip.
What was supposed to be a five-year Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority established by the Oslo Accord of 1993, to be followed by permanent status negotiations, has dragged on until today.
Talks have been held among PLO constituents to narrow the differences between those who are opposed to the peace talks and reject Israel’s right to exist on one hand, and those who have abandoned armed struggle and accepted Palestinian statehood alongside Israel on the other.
But what seems to be good news to some is unacceptable to others. Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, currently headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is opposed to any participation of Hamas.
The Cambodian conflict
Cambodia is another example of multi-party peace process, which took place within our neighborhood in Southeast Asia. This time, the process took hold and consolidated into successful state building.
The key to the termination of the Cambodian conflict was the understanding among the members of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which was founded in exile in 1982, to enter into political settlement with the de facto government in Phnom Penh led by the Vietnamese-supported People's Republic of Kampuchea.
The members of the Coalition Government included the royalist’s Funcinpec Party, the pro-western and anti-communist Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and the communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea also known as the Khmer Rouge.
To say the least, it was a complicated relationship which saw members of the international community, including the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, giving their support for this diverse group and the peace process.
The Paris Peace Agreement of 1992 led to the complete withdrawal of foreign forces in Cambodia, creation of the interim twelve-member Supreme National Council, parliamentary elections, and the restoration of Norodom Sihanouk as King.
In the initial years, a strikingly out of the ordinary arrangement was adopted wherein two concurrent Prime Ministers were appointed consisting of the leaders of Funcinpec Party and People's Republic of Kampuchea. In time, Cambodia regained political normalcy after two decades of conflict which started with the 1970 coup that ousted Sihanouk.
Obviously, the issues, circumstances, motivations, interests, and power equations are different for each conflict. But this is precisely the reason why it is crucial to bring the competing forces to a convergence and understanding.
For as long as there are parties to a conflict which could resort to what is known in the conflict resolution circle as best alternative to a negotiated agreement or BATNA, they would opt out. Even without BATNA, some might even resort to do desperate acts of defiance.
This is how one could explain the reactions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu following the conclusion of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) one quarter ago. Such reaction was not very different from the MILF’s when it was the MNLF’s time to enter into a peace agreement with the Philippine Government in 1996.
Responding to its own question on why do some states manage post-conflict peace and state-building better than others, a 2008 study commissioned by the UK Department for International Development, which is responsible for providing assistance in post-conflict situations, concluded that political inclusion is important, particularly if political settlements are to keep pace with social change that continuously evolves even as armed struggle is waged.
Some in the Philippine Government may find it advantageous to divide and negotiate separately with the stakeholders in Mindanao. This may be true for short-term political purposes of those in power. But for lasting and durable peace in Mindanao, the Philippine Government might have to support the forging of common understanding among the leaders of major stakeholders in Mindanao that their convictions or interests could be served by a particular way of organising political power that advances their common good.
Jun Abad is Chairman of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies in the Philippines. He is the author of The Philippines in Asean: Reflections from the Listening Room. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations of his affiliation.