In the Sulu Sea cauldron of militancy, terrorism and criminality, with a continuing Philippine claim to Sabah, lingering hopes of peace, stability and order still depend on a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in western Mindanao. What is its current progress and what are the likely alternatives? IAG Executive Director Benedicto Bacani shared his thoughts on this issue during the 7th Malaysian-German Security Dialogue on August 30, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur. Here are the highlights of his presentation. 


There are two (2) critical issues that affect regional security and Philippine-Malaysia relations:

1. Terrorism, criminality and militancy in the Sulu sea

2. Philippine claim to Sabah


How does the new Bangsamoro Organic Law and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao impact these two issues?


1. It is important to understand the background of the Mindanao peace process to appreciate how it affects these issues. The peace process is driven not only by Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines; nor by the majority-minority relations or by national government versus Moro region but by the internal dynamics within the Muslim community particularly along ethnic/ideological and territorial lines. The Moro National Liberation Front began in 1969 as a monolithic/united movement of Muslims in the Philippines waging a revolutionary struggle against the Philippine government. The separation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from the main MNLF in 1977 divided the Muslim community along ideological lines—MNLF as a political and social movement; MILF as Islamic; MNLF controlling the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi and the MILF holding sway over the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao; MNLF as Tausog dominated and MILF being identified as a movement dominated by Maguindanaons.


2. But this division is not new as this goes back to the time of the Sultanate of Sulu in the 15th century and the Sultanate of Maguindanao in the 16th century. These sultanates were states in themselves and now form the basis for the historical claim of the Muslims in the Philippines for an independent state. The MNLF and the MILF have developed and are evolving the Bangsamoro identity to assert a one indivisible assertion of self-determination of Muslims in the Philippines.


3. The peace process between the Philippines and the Moro people exposed “Bangsamoro” as a social construct that is a source of unity in some aspects but divides the Muslims in the Philippines in others. The new Bangsamoro Organic Law identifies Bangsamoro as “those who, at the advent of the Spanish colonization, were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, whether of mixed or of full blood.” This definition shows that being a Bangsamoro has to do with being indigenous in Mindanao and Sulu and not being Muslim. Yet, the territory of the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region and the areas of expansion are Muslim dominated. Two reasons: Christian-dominated areas have in previous plebiscites rejected being part of the autonomous region and secondly, the MILF with Islamic orientation prefers a smaller yet Muslim territory. On the other hand, the MNLF, as a political movement with claim over Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan and North Borneo, considers all inhabitants including settlers as part of Bangsa Moro. This is why the MNLF of Prof. Nur Misuari has rejected to be part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region and prefers to resolve its grievances thru the federalism track that can potentially establish one Mindanao and Sulu federal state.


4. The two separate peace processes that the Philippine government with the MNLF and the MILF has deepened this ideological and ethnic divisions among Muslims in the Philippines. The MILF peace process that culminated in the passage of the BOL is perceived by political leaders of the island provinces as favoring the Maguindanaons and the Maranaos in the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao. The Bangsa Sug Consensus composed of political leaders of the provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi are opposing the BOL and are calling for the establishment of Federal State that shall include the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga City, Sulu, Tawi- Tawi and Basilan.


5. The position of the MILF on the Sabah claim and the Sulu Sea in the negotiations with government and in the legislation of the BOL has been questioned by political leaders and heirs and supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu. The MILF is of the position that the Sabah issue is a concern of Malaysia and the Philippine government not the revolutionary groups or of the peace process. Nowhere in the peace agreements from the Tripoli Agreement up to the CAB in 2014 that the Sabah issue is mentioned.


6. While Sabah was hands-off for the MILF, the Sulu Sea was the subject of the MILF negotiation with the Philippine government and the legislation of the BOL. This was not received favorably by the Tausugs. The reference to the Bangsamoro waters in the Sulu Sea in the BBL submitted by the MILF was opposed by leaders of the island provinces. In the BOL, the Sulu Sea has been declared a Zone for joint cooperation between the national and Bangsamoro governments. A joint body for the Zones of Joint Cooperation shall be responsible for formulating policies on the Sulu Sea.


7. Who is responsible for securing the Sulu Sea? The national government is responsible for national defense, maintenance of law and order and coast guard in the Bangsamoro. The police and military are under the control and supervision of the President. There are regional offices of the police and coast guard but they are directly under the national agencies not the regional government.


8. So we go back to the question: What does this the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region mean for security in the Sulu Sea and the Sabah issue?

a. The national government not the Bangsamoro government will drive the policies on these issues so we do not expect any major change in policies in the short term.

b. In the medium and long term, the success or failure of the new Bangsamoro government will significantly impact positively or negatively to regional security.


First, how inclusive will this Bangsamoro government in terms of leadership, access to resources and development not only for the mainland provinces and MILF but also the island provinces and the MNLF?

Second, how effective will this Zone of Joint Cooperation that will govern the Sulu Sea in coordinating security in the area? How effective will the MILF and the MNLF who will share responsibility with the Philippine government in securing the Sulu Sea against terrorists and criminal elements?

Third, the draft constitution of the Constitutional Committee for the Revision of the 1987 Constitution is restoring the phrase “…it has sovereignty over other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title” as part of the Philippine territory. This is a reassertion of the claim to Sabah. The MNLF has adopted the federalism platform to implement its peace agreement with the government and will most likely support this provision in the draft constitution.

Fourth, the trilateral approach to countering terrorism involving Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia must consider and support the successful conclusion of the peace process with the MNLF and the MILF. Malaysia and Indonesia which are directly involved in the two peace processes with the MILF and MNLF must exert all diplomatic and moral pressure to bear towards inclusivity and unity in the Muslim community in the Philippines. As well, the Philippine government must insure that it will abide by the terms of the peace agreements it entered into with the Moro revolutionary fronts.