The recently established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) offers new hope for a peaceful future for its majority-Muslim population after decades of war. The new entity is the result of almost two dozen years of talks, and the peace agreements it was built on are inclusive pacts that aim to take into account the Bangsamoro’s complexity while focusing on giving its population a long-awaited peace dividend.
Yet from the start, the Bangsamoro was also rooted in a trans-regional reality, shaped by geography just as much as by the tides of war, peace, and everything in between. The various Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao making up the Bangsamoro share several cultural, religious, and linguistic characteristics with the populations of neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Some historians even talk about an “integrated nature of the region”.
Civil strife in the Southern Philippines has been linked to the broader regional environment for years. Violence in Mindanao reached its peak during the Cold War period when Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila were dealing with the aftermath of their independence. The conflict in Mindanao, like many others during that time, stemmed from a mix of unresolved legacy issues from the colonial period and the appeal of self-determination, brought forward by nascent nationalist movements. The first Moro rebels were trained in Malaysian territory. Their successors are presently learning from Indonesia’s Aceh peace process and its pitfalls. At present, Indonesian and Malaysian militants still eye Mindanao as “land of promise” in an astounding corruption of the island’s hopeful moniker.
History is one piece of the puzzle, geography is another. Muslim Mindanao sits on top of a tilted triangle that extends south from Malaysia’s Sabah region to Sulawesi and the Celebes Sea in Indonesia before going northwards to the maritime domain of the Bangsamoro. The coastlines bordering all three countries historically formed a sprawling trade network, and even now the maritime borders are so porous they are prone to illicit flows of all kinds.
And here lies the conundrum. The Bangsamoro is a region in the making that has the potential to benefit from increased cooperation between the three countries and serve as a catalyst that strengthens the trilateral connection by becoming a peaceful zone for economic activity around the borderlands. Should the BARMM fail in curbing violence and bringing development to its people, however, the Bangsamoro maritime corridor would not only be a missed opportunity but could also turn into a regional tinderbox.
For years, the Sulu Archipelago has been at the crossroads of illegal trafficking in persons, smuggling, and militancy. The triboundary dilemma of policing the porous borders manifests itself in the continuing existence of a network of militant and criminal elements better known as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Responsible for multiple kidnappings, bombings, and hijackings from Malaysian waters to the jungles of Sulu and Basilan, the ASG presently seems weakened but not defeated. Increasingly under pressure from the Philippine military, the network remains fragmented, with various factions having divergent goals. While some ideologically inclined elements have escalated violence, including suicide bombings on Jolo island, others seem focused on preserving their diminishing gains rather than boosting operations.
Signed in 2016 between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement (TCA), has contributed to reducing the number of kidnappings in the area. At the time, a large number of kidnap victims came from the region - mostly from Indonesia - as opposed to earlier years when ASG focused its efforts on kidnapping Western nationals. This may be what prompted the trilateral rapprochement, which strengthened after the 2017 Marawi siege, when Malaysian and Indonesian militants joined Moro militants in a months-long standoff with the Philippine military.
The TCA’s track record is not perfect, but it has produced some benefits. Coordinated patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas and airspace, as well as coastguard collaboration, introduced new means of jointly tackling maritime insecurity. This has significantly contributed to the criminal-cum-militants becoming more risk-averse. Together with the TCA, the peace process in the Bangsamoro has also led to new initiatives in the BARMM that aim to bring peace dividends to its peripheries – areas that were often neglected because of insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic also appears to have reduced kidnappings at least temporarily, perhaps because criminals and militants have been affected by or leery of the disease.
The threat of kidnapping remains, however. Building on the momentum created by the TCA through stronger law enforcement cooperation and intelligence-sharing is clearly in the wider region's interest. Likewise, a BARMM that develops its own maritime capabilities can play a role in supporting these measures by implementing such policies at the municipal level. The autonomous government in Cotabato City should also keep a close eye on the Sulu Archipelago, and could work with provincial elites to encourage law enforcement cooperation among those coastal municipalities.
The Bangsamoro also has untapped economic potential that lies in stark contrast to the present reality of poverty, which has driven militancy. The new region’s fragility still hinders both full-scale investments and the strengthening of regional economic linkages with neighbouring countries. Investments in the Bangsamoro, both national and international, will inevitably require time, and will be contingent on the quality of the BARMM’s governance and security environment. Innovative approaches such as facilitating more sub-regional trade through increased port connectivity in the triboundary area, and allowing a barter trade mechanism to operate freely could be beneficial for BARMM, the Philippines, and Malaysia’s Sabah region. Manila could also support the BARMM by working with its neighbours to develop joint projects on fisheries, environmental preservation, and Islamic microfinance to further stimulate the local economy and bolster food security, particularly in the maritime communities of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.
Of course, the potential for such cooperation depends on the political relations between the three neighbors. The Philippines’ relations with Malaysia are complicated. The centuries-old North Borneo/Sabah dispute is the biggest, but not the only, irritant that keeps both countries at arm’s length. Recent high-level spats on social media have once again amplified Sabah as a bone of contention. But the last controversy on the issue quickly faded away – publicly, at least. While this pickle is not likely to disappear entirely, it could still be circumvented provided the political will to get things done in both countries outweighs the insistence on territorial claims. In addition, the Philippines maintains a good relationship with Indonesia. The recent resolution of the two countries’ longstanding and contentious maritime border issue could be a basis for stronger law enforcement ties – a welcome prospect given the involvement of Indonesian militants linked to the ASG networks in several attacks on Filipino soil in the recent past.
All three countries have something to gain in working together towards a peaceful and prosperous Bangsamoro. A certain level of cooperation was strong in the run-up to the BARMM’s creation through the International Monitoring Team (IMT) that saw Malaysian and Indonesian peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. With a peace process now underway, the scope for collaboration is even greater. Manila should continue fostering ties with Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in the maritime domain and utilize the opportunities arising from the peace process momentum to create more regional confidence that would benefit BARMM and the national government alike.
The Bangsamoro will remain a litmus test of broader regional cooperation. The success of BARMM, and more broadly, the peace process, could send positive ripple effects across the wider region. The Philippines and its neighbors have a lot to gain with a Bangsamoro that could finally see a calming of its troubled waters.
Georgi Engelbrecht, Senior Analyst, Philippines. Originally published in Philippine Strategic Forum.