Beyond The Plebiscite


The recent plebiscite in the southern Philippines province of Mindanao has boosted optimism for peace and a settlement to finally end a decades-old deadly conflict in Asia.

The predominantly Muslim area overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new autonomous region. Around 85 percent of voters or some 1.74 million people supported the creation of a new autonomous region called Bangsamoro or the nation of the Moro, a vernacular term used to denote Muslims in a predominantly Catholic nation.

The new region will have greater powers to manage local resources, infrastructure, schools, healthcare and social welfare for its estimated five million inhabitants while the central government in Manila will oversee the defence, security, and foreign and monetary policies. The new autonomy will boost the local economy, education and other related developments as the region has lagged behind due to the continued conflict and violence, turning the region into one of the poorest in Asia despite the fact that it borders Malaysia and Indonesia, which have shown impressive signs of progress and development.

The plebiscite was the result of a long and chaotic political engagement between the pro-freedom Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main pro-freedom resistance group that has been fighting for an independent homeland, and the successive Catholic governments that have been extremely harsh towards Muslims. In a conflict that has stretched for over half a century, more than 150,000 people – mostly comprising members of the Moro community – have died, mainly at the hands of the military forces of the Philippines.

The peace process between the two sides has been tough and often susceptible to suspicion and rough political tempers that often scuttled the progressive movement towards a settlement. The first breakthrough came after the MILF gave up on its traditional demand for a separate country and instead demanded a federal unit with more powers. The Moro community ultimately settled for greater autonomy that led to a deal that was signed in 2014.

But it took another four years before the Congress of the Philippines approved the deal last year that cleared the way for the recent referendum, which was approved by an overwhelming Moro majority.

Interestingly, not all Muslims voted in favour of the new autonomy. The Muslim-dominated Sulu province, which is home to a rival faction of the MILF, rejected the proposal. However, the voting was largely peaceful and conducted in a cordial fashion. A second though small referendum will ask other dozen or so towns in the nearby provinces, with a sizeable Muslim population, to decide whether they would like to join the new autonomous region.

The referendum is a tribute to the reformist vision and open-minded flexibility of both the parties, particularly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who was mayor of Mindanao city before he took office. More than anybody else, he showed determination to solve the festering problem and formally signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law in July 2018, which paved the way for the referendum.

The vote couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as the power vacuum and the ossified local grievances were proving to be a fertile ground for extremist groups like Isis and those that share a similar ideology. Over the last few years, several disillusioned fighters from the MILF formed breakaway factions that pledged allegiance to Isis in addition to other radical and fringe groups.

In 2017,, the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups – Isis-affiliated extremist factions – invaded Marawi city and held it for almost five months in what became the longest war-like conflict within the Philippines since the Second World War. The violence forced more than 350,000 residents to flee as their localities were burnt and destroyed by airstrikes from government forces, supported by US and Australian military assets, and indiscriminate fire from all sides.

During the five-month-long siege, more than 1,200 people – mainly combatants – died. These included 800 militants and 162 military personnel. Since then, martial law has been in place as fears remain that the fleeing extremists from Iraq and Syria might join hands with radical extremists from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, and start a fresh war in Mindanao.

While such fears exist because of the porous borders, forests and the easy availability of arms, the latest political settlement offers hope for a more peaceful coexistence between Catholicism and Islam, and equitable progress and development throughout the region. Mohagher Iqbal, a leading MILF leader and peace negotiator, appealed to the splinter groups to recognise the will of the people for peace.

The MILF has an arduous task ahead to demobilise its fighters – about 40,000 combatants – and transform into an effective political movement to deliver success for their people. Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo promised vital help from the central government to build “a progressive economy and responsible local government”. “Let us guard and support the progress of this process because this is not yet the end of the fight for peace,” she said.

The struggle for the political autonomy of the Moro community has raised some feeble hopes for a solution to our own festering problems as well. The Mindanao struggle has many common features with the Kashmir movement for a plebiscite and an unceasing yearning to exercise their right to self-determination. Despite the continued state brutality, the Kashmiri sentiment to decide their future has found articulation through several movements – from political to armed resistance movements that demand outright ‘azadi’ to a Mindanao-type autonomy within the ambit of the Indian constitution as spearheaded by the National Conference, the largest pro-India unionist political party.

Sadly, the conflict has mainly remained hostage to the whims of the Indian political leadership, aided by a litany of missteps and failures by the Kashmiri groups espousing the cause. The impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has got the Indian leadership very worried about their standing and influence in the region, might offer a possible trigger for the Indian government to finally break free from its self-imposed unyielding position on the Kashmir issue.

Notwithstanding the propaganda and diplomatic wars, and unceasing violence against the people of Kashmir, the Indian position has proved to be unsustainable and untenable. It is time for New Delhi to consult Kashmiris as well as Pakistan and come up with a long-lasting and guaranteed solution to foster the whole region into a new peaceful arena.

The onus is on New Delhi to exhibit an honest willingness to give up on its entrenched immoderation and deceptive engagements. And Kashmiris and Pakistan will also have to offer similar sentiments.




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