A taxi driver’s guide to peace in the Philippines

The Philippines government signed its final peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in an impressive ceremony in Manila today, after decades of fighting and instability.

Last night in Manila we asked our taxi driver what he thought about this.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They haven’t really explained what it’s all about. Will all of the Moros [indigenous Muslims] agree? I still wonder whether people who have lost their sons will be ready to forgive. Maybe this is just another deal between the people at the top which will bring little improvement in the little people’s lives.”

His scepticism is justified. Since the 1960s, the Philippines has faced two large-scale violent conflicts: a separatist struggle by Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao and a nationwide communist insurgency. In late 2012 the government and MILF rebels signed a peace agreement framework, providing the momentum for resolving all outstanding issues, which led both sides to reaching the deal today.

Meanwhile last week there was a major development in the other long-running conflict in the Philippines, when two high level members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) were arrested. Unlike the MILF conflict, which is about the rights of the Moro people of the Southern Philippines for regional autonomy, the NDF conflict is about class and ideology, and is nationwide in character. It is rooted in a Marxist struggle against an oligarchic political system, possibly reflecting our taxi driver’s final point, above.

At first sight, these two events seem markedly different: on the one hand, a peace agreement signed after a long period of negotiations; on the other, the government acting to detain two cadres of the NDF with which it is also engaged in a long-running peace negotiation. Indeed, some commentators have denounced the arrest as undermining the peace process.

Yet both events should be seen as prospects for peace. The government-NDF peace process has for some time been making little progress. One of the reasons for this seems to be that the NDF side is divided about how to proceed, while the government is trying to pursue a coherent, single approach. So there has been a lot of speculation this week that these arrests might pave the way for the peace talks to be resumed.

The government-MILF agreement is also an opportunity for peace, rather than peace itself. It provides for the establishment of an autonomous government of Bangsamoro (AGB), and sets out a process through which this can take place. After years of civil war and instability, there are many reasons to be optimistic about this. But as our taxi driver suggested, there are also reasons for concern. Not all of the Bangsamoro people are happy with the deal that’s been struck, and the technical process for establishing the AGB is strewn with a number of political obstacles on which it may trip. No peace agreement by itself secures peace: that is done by the way people respond to their new situation, and it requires a concerted effort usually going way beyond the specific terms of the agreement.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity for peace in the Philippines will require a sustained effort on the part of central and local governments, by the rebel movements, as well as in civil society and the business community, over many years. Some of the factors they will need to take into account were identified at by our taxi driver last night:

  • First, they include recognising that much of the unaddressed conflict in the Philippines is not between rebels and government – so-called ‘vertical conflict’ – but rather what’s sometimes known as ‘horizontal conflict’, between different groups (including ‘shadow’ criminal groups) and factions in society. These unresolved conflicts may simmer and all too easily erupt, and have the potential to undermine the official peace processes.
  • Second, there is a communication gap. Most people – and not just our taxi driver – really don’t understand the implications of the Bangsamoro peace agreement. Even local government leaders in and near the proposed AGB area aren’t well-informed, let alone the citizens. In such circumstances there is ample room for rumours and misunderstandings to derail progress towards peace.
  • Finally, the political economy of the Philippines needs to evolve – even if Marxism is not the answer. Almost 30 years after President Ferdinand Marcos fell from office, far too much political and economic power remains in the hands of far too few people. Rent-seeking behaviour and other forms of corruption – the bane of economic development and therefore of peace – remains prevalent. Far too much of the economy is outside the tax system, hidden by the ‘shadows’ in which smuggling, drugs and arms dealing, and other illicit transactions occur.

However, the peace agreement may encourage progress on this issue too, as both parties have an incentive to deter ethnic, political and economic violence by armed groups and criminal gangs who might want to undermine peace efforts. The deal could thus finally unlock not only lasting peace but also economic development in Mindanao, which is rich in natural resources but has been mired in poverty.

But for the lives of ordinary people to be improved, they must be involved in the process.

As our taxi driver said: “We all need to participate in peace, not just the ones signing the agreement tomorrow.”