Don’t take the ceasefire for granted
The recent incident that resulted in the deaths of two police officers in Maguindanao province is yet another reminder of how complicated the security landscape remains in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). On August 30, 2022, gunmen ambushed a police team serving an arrest warrant for a wanted criminal in Kapinpilan village, Ampatuan municipality. The assailants killed the city’s police chief and one of his officers while injuring three others.
Two months into Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidency, the deadly encounter shows why, despite undeniable progress in recent years, the new administration should not be content with the Bangsamoro peace process. The new president inherited the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from his predecessors Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte, both of whom made progress in bringing peace to the troubled Bangsamoro region. Successive governments and former insurgents have worked together to implement the landmark 2014 peace accord that ended the decades-long conflict in the southern Philippines, with the MILF now leading the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA ), the interim government of the region.
As the presidential election approached and even after the vote, Marcos Jr. said very little about his intentions in the Bangsamoro; his statements so far lack specific political statements or a clear vision for the region, and some of his earlier statements have generated a sense of uncertainty about his approach to BARMM. Weeks before the ambush, however, Marcos Jr. appointed a new group of BTA officials, now with the MILF in the lead, and the president is expected to attend the BTA’s inaugural session on September 15. But if this seems to signal that the new administration intends to put the peace process back on track, the Amputuan incident serves as a warning that it should pay close attention to developments in the Bangsamoro, as obstacles remain on the path to lasting peace.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the first major security incident under President Marcos occurred in Maguindanao. Although the province has been the traditional heartland of the MILF, it is also plagued by fierce political rivalries and clan feuds. Maguindanao’s local elections in May were the most violent of all Bangsamoro provinces. Militant groups that refused to join the peace process also continue to operate in the province, resulting in occasional outbreaks; some reports suggest that the gunmen who ambushed the police belonged to a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, one of the MILF breakaways.
Fortunately, the peace process is sufficiently advanced that episodes like the Ampatuan ambush do not immediately derail it. But despite the MILF’s public pledge to help the government track down the perpetrators, the incident threatens to undermine the budding relationship between the new administration and former rebels. The Philippine National Police have issued strong statements, expressing doubts about the ex-rebels’ “sincerity” in the peace process and calling on the MILF to hand over members who have warrants for their arrest. Media comments also poured in, with an expected disconnect between some opinions from Manila which were critical of the security management of former rebels in the region they govern, and opinions from Bangsamoro which were more nuanced, underscoring the commitment of the MILF towards the peace process.
In particular, the Ampatuan meeting raises an important question about police procedures in security operations. A key pillar of the peace process was the ceasefire agreement between the national government and the MILF, which was signed before the peace accord. At the heart of the notion of cessation of hostilities is the requirement that government forces, including the police, must inform ex-guerrillas of their actions when operating in or near MILF areas, in order to avoid misunderstandings. The ceasefire agreement fell into oblivion after the signing of the peace agreement, the risk of clashes having logically diminished. But as the focus of the peace process has shifted towards implementing the peace accord and strengthening the institutions of the autonomous region, it would be dangerous for the parties to overlook the importance of protocols and the ceasefire procedure while the MILF still houses thousands of armed fighters on the ground. Although not making the headlines, ceasefire violations still sometimes result in loss of life.
Those who see the goal of the peace accord as restoring the primacy and territorial sovereignty of the Philippine state believe in the need to break out of the formalism of the ceasefire and dismantle the rebel group. This is, to some extent, a legitimate prospect, given that the MILF has now ventured into mainstream politics. Another view, however, points out that until the dismantling of the rebel movement is finalized, a flexible approach is more effective in managing the current fragile period of transition. This is especially true considering the presence of other armed groups in the area, as they often operate near MILF camps.
Does this mean that government forces must systematically coordinate with the MILF before launching police or military operations in the Bangsamoro? According to the ceasefire agreement, it basically depends on whether the targeted place or village is a bona fide MILF community. If so, coordination is essential, even if it doesn’t always make sense from the perspective of the military or law enforcement officials on the ground. Indeed, prior to Bangsamoro autonomy, on some occasions officials reported that the targets of planned raids had escaped after informing the rebels of their plans. On the other hand, some of the bloodiest mistakes occurred when MILF forces were caught completely unaware of government troop movements.
Whether Kapinpilan, where the recent incident took place, is a MILF zone in terms of a ceasefire agreement is up for debate; Peace process adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. said only that the village had a presence of “lawless elements”, and the attackers do not appear to have been members of the MILF. But even if coordination in this case were not mandatory, it does not change the overall fact that the ceasefire mechanism remains a prudent protocol that is still relevant in a post-peace accord environment in which security in some areas – such as parts of Maguindanao – remains low. To reduce the risk of misunderstandings on the ground, adherence to ceasefire protocols remains paramount.
Going further, the government and the MILF should actually take additional steps to create an environment that can prevent more security incidents, including strengthening the ceasefire.
First, ceasefire committees on both sides need to update their list of identified MILF areas, especially after the number of MILF fighters nearly halved after the early stages of disbandment. It is also crucial that police, military and other law enforcement are trained in ceasefire protocols, including members of newly deployed units. For its part, the MILF should ensure that no criminal or militant seeks refuge in its recognized areas and refrain from encroaching on areas near its camps, as required by the agreement of cease fire.
Second, both sides need to discuss problematic cases of MILF members who have outstanding warrants against them. While in the Ampatuan episode the gunmen were not part of the MILF, it is likely that the police will continue to execute warrants in or near areas of the MILF, which could lead to tensions with the exes. rebels. It should be noted that the recent amnesty offered by the government to members of the MILF refers only to actions “in pursuit of their political beliefs”, but specifically excludes crimes committed in a personal capacity, thus allowing law enforcement to arrest and prosecute some of the ex-guerrillas. Both sides should discuss these sensitive issues at their next meeting of their peace panels to ensure a common understanding of which mandates remain valid and how best to address them. These discussions should take into account that there have been instances in which MILF members have faced spurious charges that had more to do with local politics than actual violations of the law.
Third, the two sides could also strengthen ceasefire monitoring. They could, for example, accept the return of the International Monitoring Team, the official third party mandated to observe the ceasefire since 2004. Earlier this year, the two sides failed to agree on the extension of the mandate of the observers and, consequently, the mission withdrew at the end of June. If both sides prefer to strengthen the ceasefire without resorting to international involvement, as seems to be the case at least on the government side, then perhaps a monitoring network of local observers could be useful. There is precedent for such a system, for example with the establishment of the Bantay Ceasefire Grassroots Monitoring Network in 2003. Such a structure could include local government officials, religious leaders, members of civil society and agents retirement security. Another option could be to strengthen the role of the joint peacekeeping teams, established under the 2014 agreement, by extending their mandate to include monitoring the ceasefire agreement, in any or in part.
The ceasefire agreement and the Bangsamoro peace process more broadly have had difficult interludes in the past. Yet, the two signs have always demonstrated a strong commitment to overcoming challenges for a lasting peace in Mindanao. Continuing to strictly adhere to – and if possible reinforce – the ceasefire in a difficult and evolving security landscape should remain a key part of this spirit of cooperation. – Rappler.com
Georgi Engelbrecht is a senior analyst for the Philippines at the International Crisis Group, researching peace processes and conflict, among other things.