The Moro Islamic Liberation front has been engaged in a rebellion against the Philippines for more than three decades. In 2003, the U.S. Department of State asked USIP to undertake a project to expedite a peace agreement between the two sides.

Special Report: Toward Peace in the Southern Philippines

Summary

  • The Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao and Sulu in the southern Philippines, known as Moros, have resisted assimilation into the Christianized national culture for centuries. Since Spanish colonial times, Moros have been marginalized from Philippine society, politics, and economic development. Moro-dominated areas have suffered from the effects of war, poor governance, and lack of justice. High crime rates, internal clan-on-clan conflicts, and corruption and abuse by local leaders also beset Moro communities. For nearly four decades, Moros have rebelled against the Philippine government and sought self-determination. The rebellion was led first by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and then by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In 2003, the U.S. State Department, seeking to prevent international terrorist groups from exploiting the conflict in the Philippines, engaged the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to facilitate a peace agreement between the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF. The State Department felt that the Institute’s status as a quasi-governmental, "track one-and-a-half" player would allow it to engage the parties more broadly than an official government entity could. To accomplish its mandate, USIP launched the Philippine Facilitation Project (PFP).
  • PFP faced many difficulties at the outset. The Malaysian government had served as host and facilitator of the GRP-MILF peace talks since 2001 and opposed an American presence at the negotiating table. Moros suspected USIP’s presence, motives, and relationship with the U.S. government. USIP, lacking a permanent base in Mindanao, also faced challenges in establishing strong channels of communication with the GRP, MILF, and civil society. Multiple changes in the composition of the GRP negotiating team, and divergent perspectives and agendas within the Moro leadership and communities further complicated the peace facilitation effort. At times, senior GRP officials’ lukewarm support for an equitable and effective peace agreement hampered the efforts of skilled and committed negotiators. Corruption and criminality among the Moros, exacerbated by centuries-old clan loyalties, created other hurdles.
  • Despite the challenges, USIP managed to build productive relationships with both the GRP and the MILF, helped the parties come up with creative solutions to stubborn issues of ancestral domain, and started dialogue between disparate Moro ethnic groups. PFP’s multifaceted approach included directly sharing lessons learned by principals from other conflict areas around the world; training civil society leaders in conflict management; promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation via the Bishops-Ulama Forum; supporting the training of Mindanao history teachers on teaching a historical narrative that is more inclusive of the Moro experience; and launching dialogue among young Moro leaders. To improve media coverage of the conflict, PFP held two training workshops for media representatives. It also conducted six workshops on conflict management, negotiation, and communication for Philippine military officers.
  • Through its activities, USIP introduced concepts and approaches that were useful to both government and MILF peace panels. It helped inform the Philippine population, and elites in Manila in particular, of issues underlying the conflict in Mindanao, while presenting potentially viable means of resolving them. The Institute’s efforts have added marginally to more balanced media coverage. USIP funding supported the publication of policy papers, which were distributed to scholars, analysts, journalists, and policymakers. USIP also sponsored educational materials for use in Philippine schools.
  • Philippine economic progress and U.S. counterterrorism objectives will remain precarious until the Mindanao conflict is resolved. The roots of conflict in Mindanao are primarily political, not economic or religious. Preference for military "solutions" will likely miss the delicate nuances of intergroup conflict and could even worsen the situation. To move the peace process forward, U.S. policymakers must give higher priority to the GRP-MILF negotiations and commit to working with both parties long enough to reach an agreement and implement it. The Philippine government, for its part, will need to muster the political will to address Moro grievances more effectively, especially on land claims, control over economic resources, and political self-governance. When an agreement is reached, implementation will require long-term monitoring by a committed international body. Today’s complex diplomatic landscape increasingly requires new tools and techniques of conflict management, including quasi- and nongovernmental actors, to accomplish U.S. foreign policy goals. Because of its ability to deal with nonstate actors and sensitive issues underlying civil conflict, USIP can be a useful instrument for advancing U.S. interests.

About the Report

In 2003 the U.S. Department of State asked the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to undertake a project to help expedite a peace agreement between the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF has been engaged in a rebellion against the GRP for more than three decades, with the conflict concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. This report highlights USIP activities in the Philippines from 2003 to 2007. It describes the conflict and its background, the substance of ongoing negotiations, USIP efforts to "facilitate" the peace process, and insights on potentially constructive steps for moving the Philippine peace talks forward. It concludes with a few lessons learned from USIP’s engagement in this specific conflict, as well as general observations about the potential value of a quasi-governmental entity such as USIP in facilitating negotiations in other conflicts.

G. Eugene Martin was the executive director of the Philippine Facilitation Project. He is a retired Foreign Service officer who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Manila. Astrid S. Tuminez served as the project’s senior research associate. She is a senior fellow at the Southeast Asian Research Center, City University of Hong Kong, and was formerly director of research for alternative investments at AIG Global Investment Corp., and a program officer in preventing deadly conflict at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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