Inclusive Peace in Muslim Mindanao

Revisiting the dynamics of conflict and exclusion

The people of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines have been suffering the effects of violent conflict for over 30 years, at a cost of at least 120,000 dead, and the displacement of an estimated two million people. There have been peace agreements, in particular the agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996, but these agreements have failed to secure a lasting peace. Indeed, the evidence points to an increase in violence following the 1996 settlement.

This paper sets out a case that explains why there is ‘so much conflict in the post-conflict moment’. It argues that at the core of the problem is the exclusionary political economy that is developed and sustained through a complex system of contest and violence. Rebellion-related violence relating to the vertical armed challenges against the infrastructure of the state combines with inter- or intraclan and group violence relating to horizontal armed challenges between and among families, clans, and tribes. These two types of conflict interact in ways that are poorly understood and which sustain conditions serving the interests of those with access to economic and political power and exclude the majority of those in Mindanao from opportunities to improve their lives. The authors argue that the region’s underdevelopment can no longer be ascribed solely to the colonial and post-colonial exploitation of the region and discrimination towards Muslims and indigenous people, but must also be connected to the shifting balance of economic and political power within Bangsamoro society itself.

A number of key research findings support this argument:

  • Incidences of local clan-based, or group violence (“rido”) have increased markedly following the 1996 peace agreement;
  • The weaknesses of the Misuari government post-1996, and its inability to control the violence that intensified following the increase in rido and the war between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the GRP in 2000, opened up opportunities for rival groups to step up to the plate and (re)acquire economic and political power;
  • Conflict has enabled the continued growth of an underground economy marked by the proliferation of illegal drugs, unlicensed firearms, and control over small-scale and unlicensed mining activity and smuggling, providing revenue for local clans; and
  • Muslim Mindanao continues to be excluded from the fruits of national growth, and the minimal growth in the region itself is unsustainable, and mainly dependent on election and reconstruction-related consumption spending.

Given this, international and local efforts to end armed rebellion and that call for immediate ceasefires, elections, autonomy, and decentralisation as the key instruments for lasting peace and development are left wanting. They are inadequate not because these are the wrong aspirations, but because they do not engage strategically with the less visible yet vital dynamics of inter- and intra-clan conflict.

Peacebuilding strategies must, therefore do the following:

  • Include consideration of local clan-related conflict dynamics and the ways in which armed rebellion interacts with them;
  • Involve a closer exploration of the informal economy and the contestation for political influence that brings control of this economy; and
  • Enable the true nature of political and economic exclusion to be unpacked and effectively addressed.

Making progress on these fronts is challenging in that it requires dialogue processes which:

  • Operate at the nexus between armed rebellion and local community conflict;
  • Engage those towards both ends of the excluded/included spectrum – in order to confront and unpack current patterns of power and control;
  • Draw in the private sector – since this sector is key to the delivery of jobs and incomes;
  • Develop practical and strategic reforms – since dialogue in and of itself is only a means to an end;
  • Work at multiple levels – since managing conflict is the responsibility of many; and
  • Sustain momentum over an extended period – since societal change takes time.

If this peacebuilding approach can be strengthened and successfully complement other peacebuilding initiatives, then it is more likely that the resources for equitable and sustainable development in Mindanao can be harnessed effectively, to bring about the transition from persistent violence and underdevelopment to peace and prosperity for all. 

Francisco J. Lara Jr.
Phil Champain
July 2009
South and Southeast Asia
Economic development
International Alert
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