For decades Moro (Philippine Muslim) insurgent groups have been at war with Manila over issues relating to cultural and political autonomy in Muslim majority parts of the south of the country, particularly on the island of Mindanao. Duterte has resolved to put an end to these disputes through a combination of creating and implementing long overdue political agreements with moderate Moro factions while joining with the moderates to fight terrorist extremism.
One of President Duterte’s key election pledges was working to use federal solutions to end the decades long Moro conflict in Mindanao that has seen armed insurgents wage war against The Philippines in attempts to create autonomous Islamic political units in parts of Mindanao.
As part of his push for wider federalism throughout The Philippines, when it comes to Moro regions of Mindanao specifically, Duterte has promised to implement a federal style local law of autonomy known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Duterte currently faces the following obstacles to implementing the BBL.
1. Getting the rival factions Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the splinter group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on broad the comprehensive agreement in a way that satisfies both groups.
2. Convincing the Congress of The Philippines to pass the BBL without hesitation.
3. Working towards integrating the BBL into a wider federal system throughout the Philippines.
Duterte who himself is from Mindanao has taken important steps to quill the Moro insurgency more than any of his contemporary predecessors. Duterte has pledged to work with both MNLF and MILF in order to secure a lasting and comprehensive peace agreement based on a federal model that will ideally be applied to all of the country by 2020. Regarding this, he stated, “I do not think that the (MNLF), (MILF) in government or in joint venture with government can go wrong. We will see to it that justice is applied everyday, that fairness is observed”.
Today, the Davao born Duterte who himself has Muslim relatives delivered a Ramadan greeting to Philippine Muslims at the beginning of the month of fasting and prayer in Islam. Duterte stated,
“As we set forth into an era of change, one must make sacrifices not only to overcome personal difficulties, but also to create meaningful and lasting strides in our communities. By demonstrating the noble teachings of Islam, it is my fervent hope that you continue to do good deeds for the poor and the marginalized members of society.
This significant event reveals to them the will of Allah and reaffirms their resolve to achieve spiritual cleansing and growth. I ask that you foster a sense of solidarity among all Filipinos by manifesting faith through action. Let us join hands in the shared task of nation-building as we make the Philippines a more inclusive, peaceful, and united country in the years to come”.
Duterte has always been cognisant of Muslim sensitivities in spite of The Philippines being a largely Roman Catholic nation. During the recent diplomatic row over safety conditions for Filipino workers in Kuwait, Duterte addressed a letter to the Kuwait leadership with a variant of the traditional Muslim greeting of ‘As-salamu alaykum’. It was said that this went a long way in re-establishing trust between the two countries which itself led to a formal agreement on the part of Kuwait to establish proper legal mechanisms to ensure the safety of Filipinos in the Persian Gulf Arab state.
Duterte has demonstrated that like many towering leaders who pursue politics at a human level rather than as a cold exercise in bureaucracy, he is aware that in order to make political changes one must built cultural and spiritual bridges whose cornerstones are respect and good will. This in turn will help gather much needed Moro support for Duterte’s plan to reconstitute The Philippines as a federal republic and ideally one with a parliamentary rather than presidential/congressional system.
When all regions and peoples in The Philippines are allowed to take responsibility and enjoy the benefits of their own autonomous economic, cultural and social management, it does not make The Philippines weaker but stronger and more peaceful.
In this sense, just as Singapore encouraged Malays, Chinese and Tamil speaking Indians to speak their own languages in their private and personal life, but speak a unifying language for public matters in order to create both strong individual identities and a strong pan-Singaporean identity, so too is Duterte’s federal model good for distinct local cultures, the Moros being just one, while also strengthening the patriotism of all such cultures who all comprise the Filipino nation. In a further example of outreach to insurgents, Duterte also reached out to the far-left terrorist group NPA saying that eventually this fight too will end, emphasising that reconciliation is the in interests of both the Maoist fighters and the government.
I personally have more faith in Duterte being able to reach an accord with both MNLF and MILF than I do in respect of Duterte convincing a selfish Congress to rapidly pass the BBL. While Duterte strives for internal peace and fairness at home and good trade deals, security deals and respect abroad, many in the Philippine congress want to do anything they can to obstruct Duterte’s policy making for their own material and political benefit.
Duterte must work to overcome this hurdle, but the fact that the Congress in Quezon City is more of a detriment to internal peace than Moro groups in Mindanao, is proof positive that in addition to pursuing and implementing federalism for the entire country, Duterte must also work to transform the country into a parliamentary system wherein obstructionist techniques will be far less effective when advanced against a strong and popular leader.
For now though, Duterte has shown that he is willing to do what his predecessors have not been able to do. Duterte has managed to stay focused not just on the long term future of his country but on the daily spiritual lives of all people.