Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters stand in formation inside Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat town on the southern island of Mindanao in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Karlos Manlupig

The peace process in the Southern Philippines has been one of the few success stories of negotiated peace across the globe in recent years.

After decades of conflict and years of painful negotiations, a peace deal saw the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) come to power last year, tasked with leading a three-year transition period that will conclude with the election of a regional government in 2022.

The process hasn’t been entirely smooth, yet large-scale violence in the region has been largely contained and the MILF has started to decommission its fighters. But recent calls to extend the transition period, partly on account of Covid-19, now threaten to throw the process off track.

Two landmark peace agreements, in 2012 and 2014, paved the way for a sophisticated roadmap to the war-to-peace transition in the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The actual political transition started in March 2019 with the formal establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) – an interim body led by the MILF whose role is to build the institutions of the new autonomous region. It is meant to last until the 2022 regional elections.

The Bangsamoro people will then elect not only their mayors, governors and congressional representatives, but also parliamentarians, as the poll will be synchronized with general Philippine elections.

This transition period is made particularly complex by the highly fragmented nature of the region – a patchwork of various ethnolinguistic communities, armed groups and influential political clans spread across five provinces.

Map: International Crisis Group

A key faultline, for example, lies in the socio-cultural differences between the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, dominated by the Maguindanao and Maranao communities, respectively, and the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi with a Tausug majority.

A number of political clans are also deeply entrenched across the region, ruling over various localities which they have basically transformed into fiefdoms. One of the key dilemmas of the transition is thus the need for the BTA to find a modus vivendi with these powerful actors and accommodate them to ensure inclusive governance and peace.

If ignored, or confronted, some might sabotage the transition by making it messy at best, and violent at worst. Such a scenario would effectively challenge the BTA’s legitimacy and question the prospect of durable peace in the region.

Although Islamist militancy and clan feuding continue to threaten the fragile peace, Mindanao has not witnessed any major outbreaks of violence since the transition began. As for building a sustainable future for the autonomous region, the ex-rebels turned administrators have registered some successes, but much remains to be done.

The passage of key legislation is lagging and administrative hiccups remain. From delays in devising socio-economic packages for ex-combatants to unresolved matters of intergovernmental relations with Manila, or questions of transitional justice, the implementation of the actual peace agreements has also created its share of obstacles for the transition period.

In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised new challenges, forcing the rebels-turned-administrators to divert funds and human resources for public health from the core objective of establishing a strong regional institution.

Davao City Health Office personnel spray disinfectant in government offices and public spaces in Davao City on March 12, 2020. Photo: Twitter/Rappler/Manman Dejeto

Given this conundrum, some voices in Mindanao civil society have recently started calling for an extension to the transition period. Well aware that they may lose their grip on power once elections come, the ex-rebels quite logically supported these calls, with MILF leaders and their allies lobbying for this idea at the highest level.

But as other powerful political players are now weighing in, an intra-Bangsamoro consensus is far from guaranteed. Some clans reject the proposition outright while others are more nuanced, for example by making an extension contingent on a formal review of the BTA’s performance.

Their arguments feed into the broader narrative of partial disappointment with the new administration due to a mixture of real and imaginary grievances.

Those in favor of the extension argue that a longer tenure for the BTA could strengthen the foundations for the administrative apparatus and let institutions properly take root in the Bangsamoro. The dual-track of political transition and the socio-economic rehabilitation of conflict-affected areas could be completed in due time without pressure from the 2022 deadline, which could also fulfill the high expectations of the population.

Yet a longer transition period could push those skeptical of the BTA’s performance even further away, prompting them to express grievances through violence – a dynamic that has painful precedent in the Bangsamoro.

Since the BTA is appointed, not elected, an extension could also be considered by some as undemocratic – especially since the extension would likely be for three years, in order to maintain the synchronization with the national elections.

The law itself is clear: any change of the Bangsamoro transition’s modalities, including its duration, needs to be legislated by the Philippine Congress, an arduous task which would obviously require President Rodrigo Duterte’s support. The president, known to be sympathetic to the Moro cause, has personally acknowledged the “need for extension”, and his influential adviser for the peace process has also supported the idea in broad terms.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) gives a peace sign with MILF members during oath-taking of the Transition Authority at the Malacanang palace, Manila, February 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

But overall, the government has remained cautious. Possible resistance might also come from the military, which is already concerned about the delay in the Moro rebels’ disarmament and the continued existence of armed groups in Mindanao outside the peace process.

In the end, however, the duration of the transition will matter little if the already fragile status quo between the MILF and the clans falls apart in the next year. Come what may, it is therefore crucial that the MILF redouble its efforts to reach out to governors and clan leaders, both about the possibilities of extension and, more broadly, the BARMM’s functionality and future.

The best way forward in all Bangsamoro provinces for the MILF remains dialogue and emphasis on mutual interests, such as improving local governance and weakening the appeal of militant groups. Likewise, local elites need to communicate their concerns to the regional government directly or through their allies in the Bangsamoro parliament, utilizing the nascent institution rather than criticizing it from afar.

Opposing the BTA for the sake of power alone is unproductive, as Bangsamoro politics need to move away from the traditional parochialism that has been the norm so far.

The ongoing debate about the transition is also a timely reminder to Manila that it should not take the peace process for granted. Despite a good relationship between Duterte, his peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr and the MILF leadership, the pandemic has inevitably impacted the government’s priorities nationally. The complete implementation of the peace agreement by the end of Duterte’s term, in mid-2022, does not appear as likely.

With the pandemic still untamed and next year promising to be a tense prequel to national elections, the government will need to make extra efforts to prevent the peace process from slipping to the backburner. It urgently needs to engage all parties involved if it is to avoid the transition’s death by politics.

Georgi Engelbrecht is senior Philippines analyst at the International Crisis Group. His latest in-depth research report “Southern Philippines: Tackling Clan Politics in the Bangasmoro” may be accessed here.