PCIJ contributor Herbert Docena, an associate of the regional policy research institute, Focus on the Global South, provides a timely Perspective piece on the scuttled peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) over the issue of the controversial memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD).
Docena, who wrote a special report last year on the United States military presence in the Philippines, zeroes in on the U.S. involvement in the peace negotiations after it was dragged into the picture by a report of the quasi-governmental organization, United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The USIP acknowledged its facilitative role in the peace process, including providing insights on the issue of ancestral domain and the creation of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity in the unsigned MOA.
The presence of external powers like the U.S. and local elites all seeking to hijack liberation struggles for their own vested interests, Docena says, might be additional ground for opposing the MOA-AD. But he says that should also be a reason to strengthen — rather than to withhold — support for the Moros’ struggle for self-determination.
The U.S. and the Bangsamoro Struggle: Selfish determination vs self-determination
WHAT is most striking about the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report on its role “facilitating” the peace process in the Philippines is how openly it boasts of its unique capacity to be “an instrument for advancing US interests.”
The USIP is special, according to the report, because while it can claim to be separate from the U.S. government, it plays a role in the U.S. government’s internal division of labor that no other U.S. agency can. The report makes it clear that it was tasked to do the job by the U.S. State Department and that it worked closely with the U.S. embassy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Manila. But its “quasi-governmental, track one-and-a-half” status, USIP claims, supposedly enabled it to earn the confidence of local actors so much so that even members of the government peace panel reported inside information about cabinet discussions to them. The USIP, “offered a new policy instrument of the US government” which could be “incorporated more frequently into the toolkit of US foreign policy,” notes the report.
The USIP report has become hot copy lately, with the U.S.’s role being cited as one more ground for questioning, if not opposing, the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The latest result of protracted negotiations that date as far back as 1976, the MOA-AD has been billed as a breakthrough towards ending nearly four decades of war between the central Philippine government and Moros advocating for greater self-rule. Moving towards the establishment of a sub-state within the Philippines, the agreement has deeply polarized the country and has since been junked by the Philippine government. Another — perhaps more dangerous — round of fighting has erupted.
The U.S. began to be more involved in the war between the Philippines and the MILF beginning in 2003, with the USIP “facilitating” negotiations through meetings with negotiating panels, providing technical expertise, conducting forums, publishing reports, and other activities. Not unrelated to the USIP’s work, as the USIP makes clear however, has been the expansion of the U.S. military role in the country, as well as the escalation in US “development” and “humanitarian assistance.”
Two possibilities have recently been proposed to explain the U.S. agenda: one is that the U.S. is supporting the creation of an independent pro-U.S. Bangsamoro state as a hedge against a more pro-China Philippines; the other is that U.S. is deliberately fomenting and prolonging conflict between Filipinos and Moros so as to justify its intervention in Mindanao. Both assume common underlying geostrategic objectives: access to natural resources, including potential oil reserves, as well as military presence or basing.
In assessing these possibilities, it is useful, first of all, to bear in mind the U.S.’s actual record: it has crushed or has sought to crush pro-independence movements in places it has invaded and occupied (examples: what became the Philippines — including the “Moro” states that were incorporated into it — in the early 20th century, Iraq and Afghanistan today); it has no problems supporting — or not actively opposing — separatist/pro-independence movements against regimes it doesn’t like (examples: Kosovo against Serbia, the Kurds against Saddam’s Iraq, Tibet against China, Taiwan over China, etc); but it has also stood by central governments against separatist movements if these governments’ stability and support are seen as more important for attaining U.S. goals (examples: Georgia over South Ossetia, Thailand over the Patani Malays of Southern Thailand, Indonesia over the West Papuans, Marcos over the Moros in the 1970s, etc).
That last example is particularly instructive: From 1972-1976, when the poorly armed and poorly trained Moro fighters took on the might of Marcos’s military, the U.S. provided Marcos over $500 million in military assistance which contributed to tipping the balance against the Moros fighters. Despite this, the Moros — despite being poorly armed and poorly trained — managed to bring the war to a stalemate and forced the strongman to the negotiating table. The question is, has the situation changed so much that the U.S. has switched sides in order to achieve its geopolitical objectives, as some believe?
What happened as late as last week was telling: When a U.S. military-contracted helicopter went to evacuate injured fighters in an encounter in Basilan, they came to the succor of Filipino soldiers — not Moro rebels. This week, in the latest proof that U.S. troops are not only “training” Filipino soldiers, American soldiers were spotted helping Filipino troops recover unexploded bombs right during a lull in hostilities in North Cotabato.
In short, the U.S. military is shoulder-to-shoulder with Filipino soldiers, not Moro fighters. From 2002-2006 alone, the United States has given around $250 million not to the MILF but to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This has been equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the Philippines’s annual military budget. On top of this, the $260-million-worth of “development” aid that the U.S. has poured into Mindanao in the last 6 years have been intended to legitimize the national government in the eyes of Muslims — and, hence, to douse support for Moro self-determination movements.
Who have been the targets of the 300-500 U.S. Special Forces that have stayed on indefinitely in Mindanao since 2002 to help Filipino troops in their day-to-day operations? These would have to be the alleged members of the Abu Sayyaf, the more politicized factions of which continue to espouse the original goal of the MILF — Bangsamoro independence. On several occasions, even members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the other Moro movement which has a peace agreement with the government, have been targeted in operations assisted by the U.S. In at least one documented case, even Moro civilians have been killed.
Does the U.S.’s openness to — if not actual encouragement of — the MOA signal a change?
Dumping an ally?
While U.S. support for a pro-U.S. Bangsamoro state is not inconceivable, the U.S. can be expected to take this route only after concluding that a) the Philippine state can no longer be counted on to give it what it wants and that it can only get what it wants from a pro-US Bangsamoro state; b) that there is a good degree of assurance that this Bangsamoro state will indeed turn out to be pro-U.S.; c) the potential benefits of abandoning an old ally in favor of a newly created one outweigh the potential costs.
First, is it the case that the Philippine government has become so hopelessly unreliable in promoting U.S. interests and should therefore be abandoned? As we have documented in our report, At the Door of All the East: The Philippines in U.S. Military Strategy, the U.S. has managed to establish a more expansive, more deeply entrenched, more flexible, and less politically obtrusive military presence in the Philippines since 2001. The U.S. would not have been able to do this if not for President Arroyo who has gone out of her way — farther than her predecessors — in accommodating U.S. demands.
It is true that (Gloria Macapagal) Arroyo has lately expanded relations with China but, with the economic opportunities China offers, so have many other pro-U.S. allies. The Philippines may have welcomed US$6.6 million in military assistance from China last year — peanuts compared to what it gets from the U.S. — but it is still unlikely to grant China what it gives the US — military presence in its territory — nor is it likely to give China what it presumably favors if it could ask for anything — the removal of US troops from the country. In any case, if the Philippines were really in danger of being lost to China, wouldn’t the more rational response on the part of the U.S. be to avoid that from happening by trying to outcompete the Chinese? Wouldn’t the easiest way for the Philippines to fall into China’s embrace be for the U.S. to dump it?
Finding new friends?
Second, is there a fair degree of assurance that the leaders of a new Bangsamoro state will necessarily be pro-U.S. — so much more so as to compensate for the loss of a formerly pro-U.S. Philippines?
Soliciting the support of external powers to boost one’s standing in internal politics is certainly not exclusive to Filipinos. Contrary to the myth that the Moros were all united in resisting American colonizers in the early 20th century, many datus and sultans actually collaborated with the United States, to fend off Christianized Filipinos’ attempts to dominate them, as well as to preserve their privileged status within Moro society. Many ordinary Moros fought valiantly against the colonizers only to be sold out and betrayed by some of their leaders. The landlords that dominated the Philippine state would not have succeeded in resettling thousands of mostly landless northern peasants to Mindanao, thereby dispossessing and displacing Moros and other indigenous people so they could defuse rural unrest and hold on to their lands, were it not for the legitimization for these actions provided by the participation of Moro elites in the national system of patronage and spoils.
Today, there is no shortage of Moros ready to outbid Filipinos in offering Bangsamoro territory and cooperation in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. Indeed, the USIP, along with other U.S. government agencies, has been busy identifying, grooming and financing Moro leaders — showering them with scholarship opportunities, bringing them to the U.S., employing them, funding their NGOs, etc. As in other sites of U.S.’s political intervention, the USIP’s and other agencies’ work in “strengthening Intra-Moro communication and unity” is a deliberate political project to locate, build relations with and build the capacity of those moderate pro-U.S. Moros in an attempt to make them better-resourced and more influential than the alternatives.
Similar to Moro leaders in the past who preferred being part of a separate colony or protectorate of the United States to being part of the Philippines, some Moro leaders today can justify supporting the US — or at least, not antagonizing it — as a pragmatic policy for advancing Moro nationalist goals. It is indicative, for example, that neither the MNLF nor the MILF leaderships have come out after all these years to categorically oppose the expanding U.S. military presence in Mindanao. After faintly making noise about the U.S. military activities in Mindanao last February, for example, the MILF turned quiet after a visit from U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney. A number of influential Moros, many of them among those who have benefited from U.S. patronage, have unsurprisingly come out in support of U.S. military intervention in Mindanao.
The calculus facing the leaders of those who have won their independence, however, could be different from that facing those who have yet to gain it. Assuming that the Moros succeed in getting their own state with U.S. support, the Moros would also become less dependent on external patrons for a struggle that has been won. Once this happens, prolonging the alliance with the U.S. could conceivably become harder to sell to the Moro people, sensitized as they are to the plight of fellow Muslims from Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan under U.S. aggression. Moro elites would still want foreign patrons to preserve their power like other elites; but they would also have to be concerned with winning elections or retaining legitimacy. The more likely outcome is a Bangsamoro that is just like many other Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia or Malaysia, where support for U.S. foreign policy, while not impossible, has become a political liability that few politicians are willing to bear. Hence, betting on a pro-U.S. Bangsamoro state may be a risky gamble that the U.S. may not want to take.
A risky gamble
It could take the risk -– but only if the probable benefits outweigh the costs. This brings us to our third question: Is the U.S. likely to gain more from the creation of a new state whose allegiances are uncertain than from losing an old reliable ally?
Consider the U.S.’s need for basing. While U.S. military presence has expanded in recent years to include areas in Mindanao, a quick look at the map below shows that it covers the entire country. In Mindanao, this presence extends to areas that are not to be covered under the proposed Bangsamoro sub-state. The U.S. Special Forces’ Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines’ (JSOTF-P) headquarters, for instance, is in Zamboanga City, whose mayor Celso Lobregat has been at the forefront of opposition to the MOA-AD and who has made no secret of his “wish” for the U.S. to build a permanent base in his city.
That the JSOTF-P is in Mindanao is not necessarily in preparation for the rise of a new Moro state: it is where it is because it is where its presence can be more plausibly explained — Mindanao is where the “terrorists” are — rather than, say, in Batanes, which is closer to Taiwan and mainland China, but where it has no pretext to be stationed in. The JSOFT-P is assured of remaining — and could even choose to expand — in Zamboanga City with or without the consent of the Moros as long as the Philippine government agrees. Why, in abandoning the Philippines for a pro-U.S. Bangsamoro state, would the U.S. want to give up its control of or access to all those ports and facilities in Subic, Nueva Ecija, Batanes, Cebu, General Santos City, etc. just to have bases in Mindanao when it can have them all?
Could the U.S. just be hedging its bets — not necessarily abandoning the Philippines now but just making sure it has a contingency plan in case the Philippines crosses the line? Or could it just be pitting off the Filipinos and the Moros to make them outbid each other for U.S. support, thereby giving the U.S. the power to hold both on a leash while giving it the pretext to get what it wants (basing, market for equipment, allies)?
This is plausible. But it is also riskier than sticking to the status quo because it could turn into reality precisely that scenario that the U.S. may want to avoid: that Filipino elites, not sure of U.S. loyalty, could increasingly be alienated by the U.S. and consequently be lured by China to its side; at the same time, that Moro fighters, realizing that it is bullets provided by the U.S. to Filipino soldiers that are killing them, could turn against the U.S. Filipinos and Moro elites may often find it rewarding to sidle up to the U.S., but they are also not unthinking puppets with no regard for their own interests.
The larger interests
It is always tricky figuring out how exactly U.S. strategy is conceived: there is always a danger of imputing too much — but also of too little — rationality into U.S. thinking. Another explanation for the U.S.’s interest in the peace talks and its openness to the solution posed by the MOA could be this: the U.S. still wants and needs the Philippines as its ally but in order for it to be of any use for advancing U.S. interests, the Philippines has to be stronger and more stable. And it won’t be so for as long as it remains bogged down fighting various separatist and communist movements simultaneously.
More pragmatic and more far-sighted — and hence as self-interested but more cunning — than some Filipino leaders concerned more with keeping their offices or landholdings than with promoting the enduring collective interests of ruling groups, the U.S. probably understands that it is only by addressing what the USIP dares to correctly describe as the Moro’s “legitimate grievances” that the Philippines can disarm the MILF, move on to other enemies, and become the stable reliable ally that the U.S. wants and needs it to be. In so doing, the U.S. is also able to reward, co-opt and strengthen that section of the Moro elites who could otherwise be antagonistic to its objectives or who could lose out to those with more radical social and economic programs should war persist.
To keep all three — Moro, Filipino, and U.S. elites — together, however, the acceptable solution for the U.S. will have to be one which would still promote their larger common interests. It is for these reasons that the MOA’s provisions on natural resources are worth scrutinizing: the U.S. may be indifferent to how the Filipinos and Moro ruling groups split revenues with each other — just as long as, say, UNOCAL, which is already operating in the Sulu sea, and other corporate interests are not shut out from the region. As if to appease all those investors who are already harnessing Mindanao’s resources, the MOA spells out that all mining concessions, timber licenses shall continue to remain in place unless revoked by the BJE. What could be in store is just a U.S.-presided renegotiation in the power relations between Moro and Filipino ruling groups.
A continuing struggle
A more stable Philippines, with a Mindanao that is “peaceful” and open for business, with pliant, relatively more powerful and less subordinated Moro elites at its helm, seems to be a more ideal scenario for the U.S. than an antagonized pro-China Philippines and/or an independent Bangsamoro state with leaders who have uncertain loyalties. But while this scenario is rosier for the U.S., and arguably even for Filipino elites, it may not necessarily lead to liberation.
To the extent that the MOA promises more power to the Moro people as a whole, much more than any agreement achieved in over thirty years of fighting and negotiations, it can potentially be a step away from the Moros’ long history of marginalization as a people, so long as it does not end up trampling on the rights of other oppressed peoples. How that power will be used and for whose benefit, however, will only be decided in a continuing contest: whether it is a step towards emancipation depends on who will eventually prevail.
As is to be expected, in this struggle, other self-interested parties are attempting to hijack the Moros’ right to self-determination to their advantage. To oppose measures that would advance the Moros’ struggle — in the hope of frustrating these parties — may backfire: it could only end up pushing the Moros into these parties’ embrace, allowing them to pass themselves off as their protectors. That others seek to instrumentalize the Moros’ struggle is no reason to turn our backs on all those who, along with the landless Christian migrants or the indigenous peoples, have been historically oppressed and who have long been advocating for a just end to the war. It is even more reason to stand by their side.
(This article first appeared in the monthly e-newsletter of Focus on the Global South Philippines programme.)