The Politics of Transition
By Eric Gutierrez

The 1996 Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was announced as a breakthrough. It seemed to have achieved the politically impossible. It affirmed the legitimacy of the Bangsamoro cause, even as it maintained the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippine republic. Moreover, the promise of unlocking Mindanao’s vast development potential beckoned. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with
other international bodies, expressed eagerness to support the Agreement.

The Agreement promised to expand both the powers and the territoryof the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), subject to a plebiscite, but this would be postponed for three years to allow for confidence-building. The formula was an attempt to reconcile the
Philippine Constitution’s provisions for a plebiscite as a precondition for autonomy with the Tripoli Agreement’s provisions for a Moro autonomous region with a predominantly Christian population. The MNLF’s anxiety that a plebiscite would inevitably reduce the autonomous region’s territory was allayed, to some extent, by the provision that provincial boundaries could be redrawn to cluster predominantly Muslim municipalities. This offered the possibility of a new autonomous region substantially bigger than the existing ARMM, and including most Muslim communities in Mindanao.

During the three-year transition period, a Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), led by the MNLF, would supervise development programmes in the 14 provinces covered by the agreement. In a parallel informal agreement, MNLF Chair Nur
Misuari had agreed to run for election as governor of the existing ARMM under the banner of President Ramos’s party. The entire package was intended to demonstrate to a doubting public that a larger autonomous region under Bangsamoro leadership could improve the lives of all people in the area.

Less than a month after the document was signed, however, the deal had begun to falter. Executive Order (EO) 371, the presidential directive for carrying out the Agreement, clearly missed out on some substantive points. It proclaimed a Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD) in the 14 provinces. However, the transition structures created — the SPCPD and the Consultative Assembly (CA) — were too powerless to make an impact. They had very limited funding, no police powers, no control over national projects and programmes that were supposed to be within their remit, and no jurisdiction over significant sections of the bureaucracy in the
region.

It has become clear that the transition structures have failed and run out of time. The question is — can the transition still be saved? — and granting that it can, what lies ahead when the autonomy embodied in Phase II of the Agreement is implemented?

A precarious compromise

The transition was a precarious compromise from the outset because the government did not speakwith one voice to the MNLF. When the peace negotiations went into substantive discussion in late 1995, Congress initially distanced itself, declaring the talks to be exclusively the domain of the executive. Congress, therefore, was not bound by any commitment the Administration made, and could question the agreements entered into.

After an interim agreement containing the points of consensus was signed, the Senate stepped in. From July to September 1996, it conducted public hearings to review the commitments made. Only when the Administration accepted nine amendments did the Senate back down. These included the withdrawal of any political powers of governance from the SPCPD and the CA. The Senate also wanted the independence of local government units emphasised, and insisted that national government agencies to be controlled and supervised by the SPCPD should be enumerated to avoid blanket coverage. Six of the 24 senators, including the Senate President, voted against a resolution expressing support for the peace talks.

In the House of Representatives, the opposition was led by three women from Mindanao, collectively known as the ‘Tres Marias’. They accused the Ramos administration of selling out to the MNLF and whipped up anti-Moro sentiment into virulent opposition to the Agreement among Christian settlers in Mindanao. Only ‘over their dead bodies’ would the MNLF rule Mindanao, they said. In the end, the Tres Marias, through the House Appropriations Committee, were able to block funding for the transition structures.

The politicians who opposed the Agreement were emboldened by public uproar against the deal. Vigilantes exploded bombs to make their presence felt and threatened further violence if the Agreement was sealed. Attacks on the Agreement gained ground and were left largely unchecked for a number of reasons. The negotiations had lacked transparency, which made the political opposition nervous about what might be cooking. Civil society organisations were kept out of the discussions. Even efforts backing the Agreement, from groups like the Peace Advocates of Zamboanga, were largely ignored. The Agreement thus came out with relatively little popular support. Although many Christians were prepared to give it a chance, the opposition had a head start.

Just before the Final Agreement was signed, six senators, nine congressional representatives and a provincial governor filed a petition with the Supreme Court to invalidate the Agreement. They argued that the transition violated constitutional statutes, that the executive had usurped legislative powers, that the document could not have the force of law, and that the peace treaty would pave the way for Moro authoritarianism in the south. There was, however, a technicality: the Supreme Court could not act on the petition until the administration issued the necessary Executive Order as proof of its intentions.

Thus the petition became a sword of Damocles hanging over the Agreement and it effectively watered down substantive provisions in the Executive Order. When EO 371 was issued on 2 October 1996, there were clear mismatches with the Agreement. Among these were:

the EO provision on funding did not specifically allocate funds for the transition structures —
neither was the Department of Budget and Management instructed to draft a supplementary budget for recommendation to Congress, as stated in Point 15 of the Agreement; the EO did not make explicit that 44 (out of 81) members of the Consultative Assembly would come from the MNLF, as stated in the Agreement;

the EO created a complicated bureaucratic maze (see box opposite) — its provisions on the
role of SPCPD were merely declarations of policy, too general to be of any use for ground level executive action. The Agreement itself was more specific: it named seven government agencies whose operations in the SZOPAD region would be ‘placed under the control and supervision of the SPCPD’.

The administrative framework for the transition had reduced any impact the new institutions could be expected to make. All they could do was make recommendations to the President. Any attempt to increase these powers could result in the Supreme Court declaring the entire set-up as
unconstitutional.

Lacking authority and adequate funding, the SPCPD, the CA, and the SPCPD Secretariat have remained essentially powerless, unable to make any noticeable impact. They could not even initiate development planning because that function had been specifically assigned to a Special Development Planning Task Group headed by the National Economic and Development Authority. Nor could they directly ask national government agencies to address the priorities they established — everything and anything had to go through the Office of the President.

The transition is expected to set in motion a much more difficult political process: to push Congress to amend or repeal the existing autonomy law (Republic Act 6734), pass a new Organic Act incorporating pertinent provisions of the Agreement, and submit this Act for approval in a plebiscite to the people in the affected area. In the meantime, however, die-hard opponents of any meaningful political settlement with the Moros have grown more powerful.

The 1998 local elections swept many pro-Agreement politicians out of office, while their anti-Moro counterparts expanded their bases. In General Santos City, Mayor Rosalita Nu–ez lost to Adelbert Antonino. A wealthy settler who made money from logging, he is the husband of Representative Lualhati Antonino, one of the Tres Marias.

Another representative, Daisy Avance Fuentes, not only won re-election but was even ‘promoted’ to the powerful post of Deputy Speaker for Mindanao in the House of Representatives. She is
remembered for her harangues calling Moros ‘killers of (our) relatives’. Former Representative Maria Clara ‘Caling’ Lobregat, a symbol of conservative Christian politics in the South, is now mayor of Zamboanga City. Her son Celso took her seat in Congress. Their election slogan was ‘No to SPCPD!’

These three representatives are allied to incumbent President Joseph Estrada who, despite
pronouncements of support for the Agreement, seems uninterested in the Moro cause. No clear
policy on Mindanao, much less on the Peace Agreement, has been heard from the new administration.

This situation is exacerbated by the growing political isolation of the MNLF. Rather than trying to
create a wide constituency of support for the Peace Agreement, the MNLF chose to build an
exclusive partnership with Lakas-NUCD (Ramos’s political party) whose presidential candidate Jose de Venecia lost in the 1998 election.

The election results show signs of diminishing popular support for the MNLF, in the face of challenges from within the wider Muslim community: ex-rebels, politicians, or the traditional elite. Only two of the MNLF leaders who ran for Congress or for important local posts were elected. Hussin Amin is now Congressional Representative for Sulu 1st District. Former MNLF Secretary General Muslimin Sema has become Mayor of Cotabato City, but his victory was tainted by charges of irregularity.

The political realignments have not only left Misuari and the MNLF without strong, dependable allies in Manila. They may also have diminished the prospects of Congress or the new President initiating a rescue of the transition.

Saving the Agreement

The 1996 Peace Agreement, therefore, is in danger of suffering the fate of the Tripoli Agreement.
Instead of a real settlement that will permanently end the violence, a mangled version of autonomy is undermining public confidence in the proposed solution. Bureaucratic gridlock, legal disputes, political challenges, and diminishing popular support are eroding the territory, authority, funding and political infrastructure of the new autonomous region even before it can be set up. National government is indifferent. Popular acceptance is lacking. Institutional support from the churches, business and the media is lukewarm or at times completely absent. MNLF leadership and executive agencies in SZOPAD, including the Office of the President, have not lived up to popular expectations.

The MNLF, having taken charge of the ARMM government and entered into a partnership with the administration, has found out the hard way that running government bureaucracy can be more difficult than waging revolution. For instance, whether he wants to or not, Misuari is being asked to be a patron providing jobs and attending to requests from people who knock on his door. But Mindanao needs more than a patron. It needs a leader who can be both skilled technocrat and savvy politician, or a modernising agent who is also a tough boss, and can rein in the various challenges, some of them still armed, to his rule.

The 1996 Agreement simply has not been given a chance to work. As September 1999 approaches,
when the SPCPD’s term expires, fingers will inevitably be pointed at those who are to blame for
another apparent failure. But the facts can be allowed to stand for themselves. What is needed is
consensus from the various key players — the Administration, Congress, the MNLF, local politicians, the churches, civil society organisations, the international community etc. — on the need for positive and complementary intervention to save the Agreement, drawing on the lessons of the past three years.

Government, particularly the Office of the President, has to initiate a rescue, for the simple reason that it has the most to lose. Should the Agreement fail, Manila will go on record as being incapable of meeting commitments made at the negotiating table.

To start with, the Administration could prolong the transition period and increase the powers of the transitional institutions. Under the terms of the peace agreement, the President can extend the
transition on the request of the SPCPD. In effect, the Administration and the MNLF would have to
agree on this step.

The Administration can also, for instance, initiate post-Agreement discussions and evaluations to
continue the seemingly endless but critically important search for solutions. Key problems that have emerged — lack of funding, the armed challenges, or bureaucratic inertia — should be clearly identified so they can be properly dealt with. The different sides, including the international community, can then begin to be more pro-active in dealing with other problems that are starting to emerge, like the political realignments after the May 1998 elections. The transition is supposed to be a confidence-building phase for both sides. If any lesson is to be drawn from the past three years, it is that confidence can be built only through continuous dialogue.

Eventually Congress, more than the executive, will emerge as the key institution with the mandate and power to resolve the troubles. The transition phase merely buys time for the more difficult process of enacting a new autonomy law. Congress is the venue where the substantive provisions for autonomy will be debated and crafted.

Whether Congress does take the lead will of course depend on a number factors. First, the parties
represented there need to reach a consensus in laying down what Soliman Santos describes as the
legal framework for peacemaking (see box p. 72). The lack of a multi-partisan base for the Agreement was a key reason why Congress became increasingly opposed to the deal. Second, the
fate of this process in the legislature will depend on a change of heart among key congressional
leaders. Congress can also allocate the necessary funds — seed money or dividends — for
consolidating peace. Assuming an extension of the transition period, it can also expand the limited space under which the SPCPD and the CA operate by reshaping administrative boundaries according to the proposals of Fr. Eliseo Mercado (see box below).

A Bureaucratic Nightmare
by Fr Eliseo R Mercado

The Peace Agreement and Executive Order 371 carved out a Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD), which covers the administrative regions of Southern, Western and Central Mindanao, as well as the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).The Agreement also established two new structures, the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) and the Consultative Assembly (CA). These two bodies were set up to co-ordinate, promote and accelerate peace and development efforts in the SZOPAD.

The SPCPD and CA were established without any change in existing regional boundaries or administrative structures in the Southern Philippines. Thus they co-exist with Regional Development Councils (RDCs), Regional Peace and Order Councils (RPOCs), and regional offices of national government departments. No division of roles and functions was defined
between the old and new bureaucracies. The old bureaucracies, in any case, were unlikely to welcome any newcomers to their turf, let alone bodies composed of former rebels.

The relationship of the SPCPD and the CA to local government units at provincial and municipal level is also ambiguous. While the provincial governors and city mayors are ex officio members of the CA, their attendance and participation in its meetings are minimal. It has too little authority to be of interest to them. The new structures seem to be in limbo, as far as the other government
bodies operating in SZOPAD are concerned.

The MNLF leaders, serving in the new structures and in the ARMM, have had to learn new skills and undergo radical adjustments to conform to the processes of government bureaucracy. The government bureaucratic wheel turns slowly, and anything but customer-friendly. The MNLF’s integration into this bureaucracy means that it has assumed the bureaucracy’s unfriendly culture.

Another problem is the perceived exclusiveness of the MNLF. People in SZOPAD perceive that one needs to wear an MNLF ‘badge’ to get appointed to a responsible position in the ARMM or
the SPCPD. But an MNLF badge is no guarantee of competence or managerial skills. Unless this exclusiveness is replaced by an inclusiveness for all the peoples of the Southern Philippines, the
MNLF will simply turn into a traditional patronage system.

Recommendations

There is an urgent need to extend the transition period and to rework Executive Order 371 in keeping with the spirit of the peace accord.

1.Much is expected of the MNLF, but little support has been given. The capacity of institutions and individuals must be built up to assist its transformation from a politico-military organisation into an organisation for democratic governance.

2.The administrative regions of the Southern Philippines must be redrawn. The existing regional divisions should give way to a new administrative region, the SZOPAD.

3.The SPCPD and the Consultative Assembly should replace the existing RDCs and RPOCs in SZOPAD.

4.The functions of the SPCPD and the Assembly urgently need further definition.

5.The relationships between the new structures and the various government agencies should be defined.

6.The participation of local government units in the new structures must be strengthened. Development and peace initiatives happen at the level of local communities — villages, municipalities, cities and provinces. Local government is at the front line.

The SPCPD and the CA must be given a clear mandate as the primary bodies co-ordinating, promoting and accelerating peace and development efforts in the SZOPAD.


Mercado’s proposals seem to be the crucial middle ground that could strengthen the political
perimeters of the Agreement. The SPCPD and the CA, operating as a new Regional Development
Council for SZOPAD, have the potential to consolidate authority, build local multi-party consensus, and rationalise development efforts.

In drawing up a new autonomy law, Congress could also start a wider consultative process to
demonstrate to Christians, Muslims and Lumads alike that autonomy is in their interest. This could lead to the crafting of a package that promises to further enhance local government roles and start the long process of redistributing wealth and the benefits of development. By enshrining the policy framework that will guide future ground-level executive action, Congress could provide a sense of security to the different groups involved, recognising minority demands and concerns, and guaranteeing the financial and administrative sustainability of autonomous structures.

If mutual confidence can be consolidated, then the outcome of the plebiscite, whichever way it goes, will become much more acceptable to all sides — even if only six provinces and a few clustered municipalities vote to join a new regional autonomous government.

It should have become clear to the MNLF that the success of the Agreement depends on wider
popular support, beyond the Moro constituency. They therefore need to build coalitions with civil society organisations, sympathetic Christian politicians and local officials, and to reassure certain sectors that their fears of so-called ‘Moro authoritarianism’ are unfounded.

Rather than addressing the criticisms, MNLF Chair Nur Misuari simply deflects blame towards the limitations of the Agreement. He argues that only when real autonomy is implemented — that is, when the autonomous region has its own regional security force, its own legislature, and the physical and financial capability to sustain itself — can the problems of the Moro people begin to be properly addressed. But the vision of autonomy needs more content: it becomes devoid of significance to people’s lives if issues of democratisation and development are glossed over.

To many people in the ARMM, the concept of autonomy has come to mean simply an extra
bureaucratic layer between themselves and Manila, which slows government down rather than making it more responsive or accessible to the people. This is clearly not the fault of the MNLF. But the MNLF will have to show the positive potential of regional autonomy.

The MNLF must review its goals and re-create itself. Based on their performance so far, some
MNLF leaders are beginning to look like traditional politicians, using patronage and political office to increase their wealth and status. So far, the MNLF has not defined an economic agenda that would redistribute assets and the benefits of development, and demonstrate that their goals are for the good of the majority.

Civil society organisations need to assert themselves more. These groups are crucial in raising strategic questions omitted from the Agreement (such as the Lumad agenda), improving transparency and scrutinising the kind of strategies government is pursuing to promote ‘peace and development’. Civil society organisations can also support the social infrastructure needed for reconstruction.

More than ever, support from the media, the churches, business councils and other social institutions is needed to turn around opinion about the Agreement. For instance, there has been very little effort to explain the Agreement to the population at large. The document has not been translated into local languages and distributed to, say, the barangay (village) councils in the affected areas.

Finally, the international community must intervene more creatively. The United Nations Development Program for instance, has led the field in providing short-term development assistance to help Moro rebels to return to productive civilian lives. But unless these efforts are tied to a more strategic vision of eradicating poverty, the programme might end up as a deodorised version of Marcos’s policy of attraction. It should show official support for efforts that aim to redistribute assets and provide long-term, stable jobs — the ultimate measures of security for a long-dispossessed people.

The next arena may prove to be more difficult, but nobody said it was going to be easy. The
reconstruction and rehabilitation of Mindanao and the Bangsamoro homeland is going to be long,
difficult, and complex.

Back to top