The Southern Philippines’ Post-Conflict Transition Is on Track, but Behind Schedule

The Southern Philippines’ Post-Conflict Transition Is on Track, but Behind Schedule
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, talks to reporters in Manila, the Philippines, Feb. 20, 2018 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

Two years into the three-year mandate of a transitional authority tasked with governing a long-troubled corner of the southern Philippines, its chief minister, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, is pushing to extend the term of his interim administration. The transitional authority’s 80 members were appointed to lead the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or BARMM, in 2019, as part of a peace deal the Philippine government signed with Muslim rebels fighting for independence in Mindanao. The extension, if approved, would postpone a scheduled vote for the region’s first democratically elected parliament from May 2022, as originally foreseen by the transition agreement, until 2025.

Ebrahim is also chairman of the 40,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, which fought a four-decade separatist war against the Philippine government before negotiating to demobilize in exchange for regional autonomy. His proposal for a three-year extension comes amid delays in implementing the agenda of the MILF-controlled transitional administration, formally known as the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, or BTA. The transitional authority is mandated to govern while forging a new administrative bureaucracy, but has been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the former. So far, only three of six priority bills have been passed in the BTA’s parliament, while the process of disarming MILF rebels has slowed.

Opponents of Ebrahim’s proposal are concerned it would constitute a MILF power grab that goes against the spirit of the peace deal. Indeed, delaying the poll risks driving recruitment by Islamist militant groups among disenfranchised voters. That is a particular worry in the Sulu archipelago, home to the Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf, where residents voted against autonomy in the 2019 referendum that ratified the peace deal. On the other hand, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, has lent his support to extending the BTA’s term. He and other proponents of the plan argue that Ebrahim needs more time to consolidate the BTA’s institutions and learn from the governance failures of the BARMM’s predecessor, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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