The peace process in the Philippines has undergone a significant setback with the failure of Congress to approve a major bill strengthening the autonomy of the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao. How will this affect stability and security in the Philippines, and what are the consequences for investors?
Despite the efforts of President Benigno Aquino, the Filipino Congress failed to approve the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL) before a three month recess. The BBL is designed to strengthen the political autonomy of the Bangsamoro region home to the predominantly Islamic Moro ethnicity. This bill would have been a major step towards implementating the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), a peace deal between the government and the Philippines’ largest ethnoreligious separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The current administration under President Aquino had hoped the BBL could secure the frail peace with the MILF under the CAB and bring an end to the conflict which has killed and displaced thousands, cost the government billions of dollars, and left Mindanao economically underdeveloped. That hope is now in jeopardy as the BBL and the peace process face mounting uncertainty.
An Uncertain Future for the BBL
The recent setback means that it will be three months until Congress can resume work on the BBL. Just as importantly, it means that responsibility for shepherding the BBL through Congress will pass to a new president, as presidential elections will take place in May. President Aquino was a strong advocate of the bill, but many of the leading presidential candidates are far less enthusiastic.
Grace Poe, the independent candidate leading the field in the most recent national poll, opposed the BBL in the past, claiming it would create a separate country within the Philippines. Jejomar Binay of the UNA party, also a strong performer in recent polls, has said that he does “not necessarily” support the BBL and believes some provisions of the bill are unconstitutional. Even Aquino’s successor in the Liberal party, Mar Roxas, has been noticeably tepid regarding the BBL, declining to answer questions about his support for the law in a recent interview.
As elections draw closer, candidates will be under pressure to reject the BBL, given widespread opposition to the bill among Filipino voters – particularly in the aftermath of the Mamasapano Clash. Furthermore, the Supreme Court is currently reviewing the CAB and may find some provisions to be unconstitutional.
Overall, the political viability of the BBL is diminishing and the government may need to start again from scratch to develop an alternative bill to meet the requirements of the CAB.
The longer and more difficult the process of implementing the CAB becomes, the more likely the whole arrangement will break down. The MILF is already increasingly skeptical of the government’s intentions, and further delays will only reinforce their fears. If the BBL is scrapped, the MILF will likely see this as a betrayal of the CAB and will be more likely to defect. More incidents like Mamasapano could occur and further undermine support for the peace process in both the government and the MILF.
A Dangerous Opportunity for the Philippines
The uncertainty surrounding the BBL also presents an opportunity for Mindanao’s other militant factions – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – to disrupt the peace process. The BIFF in particular will look to exploit this delay and the concerns it is creating among Moros (and within the MILF) to rally support for its more extreme version of Moro statehood. The BIFF will also likely carry out attacks designed to make the continuation of the peace process politically infeasible for the government.
Unfortunately these political developments will put a damper on efforts to stabilize Mindanao and end the decades-long ethnoreligious insurgency in Bangsamoro.
If the government cannot follow through on the CAB with the MILF, it will be unable to concentrate its efforts on rooting out the more extreme groups like BIFF and ASG. Furthermore, if the CAB fails due to the death of the BBL, there is a distinct possibility that major conflict could resume between the MILF and the government, further destabilizing the region.
As a result, investors and businesses interested in opportunities in Mindanao will continue to face substantial risks, including kidnapping, extortion, and terrorism. If open conflict resumes with the MILF, these risks will only worsen.
Investors should also be aware that continued conflict in Mindanao will set back development in the Philippines as a whole by forcing the government to allocate a sizeable chunk of its limited budget toward internal security.
The civil conflict diverts government resources that could be allocated toward much-needed investment in education and infrastructure, diminishing the country’s otherwise promising economic potential. Until the government can get the Mindanao conflict under control, investors will need to be wary of the prospects for the Filipino economy and hedge their bets accordingly.