Philippines and Thailand: Need for Regional Peace Initiatives

25 Sep, 2013    ·   4126

Aparupa Bhattacherjee comments on the similarities between Thai and Filipino insurgent outfits

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

Since the beginning of September this year, the city of Zamboanga, Philippines is witnessing clashes between militant groups and the Filipino National Army. The row began on 9 September 2013, after rebels attacked Zamboanga city with the intention of hoisting the faction’s flag in the city and declare its authority. Although both the Filipino government and the National Army attribute this attack to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction but Nur Misuari, the leader of the group, has denied any such claims. Such an event clearly points out the failure of the government’s initiative to bring about peace in the country, which elicits two questions: What were the peace proposals made by the government? Why did these proposals fail?

Illusion of an Insurgency-Free Country
The MNLF which was formed in 1976 had previously been one of the biggest insurgent outfits in the Philippines. Since its formation, several violent assaults were made in order to make clear their demand for an autonomous Muslim state.  The Filipino government was unable to propose peace initiatives until the 1990s due to political instability at the centre. In 1996, under the leadership of President Fidel Ramos, a peace deal was signed with the MNLF which led to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMS). However, the assurance of peace was soon broken when the MNLF split into several other factions such as Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf group which continued acts of militancy in the region.

In 2010, the government tried initiating another round of peace talks with the MNLF. However, the MNLF refused to negotiate, stating that the initially signed autonomous region agreement had mostly covered the same areas. Separately, tentative success was achieved by the Filipino government when a peace accord was signed with the presently larger faction of MILF. The agreement was perceived to be a milestone and several political and financial benefits were granted to the group. It also led to a general understanding that several other smaller rebel factions would follow suit in lieu of similar privileges. However, current events in the country completely negate this understanding.

Philippines and Thailand: Similar Circumstances
On a closer look, the history of insurgency movements and the several failed attempts to eradicate such movements in the Philippines seem to be identical to similar efforts in Thailand. Both southern Philippines and southern Thailand are affected by separatist ethno-religious activities; these movements are similar in terms of the reason for their existence, goals, and operations. The sheer misjudgement on the part of colonial powers and insensitivity of the newly formed independent governments towards ethnic minorities were the reasons which sowed the seeds of insurgency in both countries.

In 2013, a peace deal was signed between the Thai government and the Thai insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). Similar to the peace accord signed between the Filipino government and the MILF, this deal was considered to be landmark. However, persisting violence made it clear that the deal could not achieve the desired result. There are several factions involved in the execution of violence in both countries – of these, some groups might be known whereas there might be several other smaller factions whose identity goes undetected. Roping in one faction does not ensure that other groups will follow the same path. Thus, peace deals with one faction do not ensure peace in the region. Moreover, the ceremonious signing of an accord with a particular group is no guarantee to ensure the end of insurgency, which was made clear when the 1996 peace accord was broken by the MNLF.

Dismantling of such insurgent groups can be one of the ways out, yet in case of both Thailand and Philippines, success cannot be assured as most of the insurgent factions are spread out into several branches not only within their own boundaries but also in the neighbouring countries.

Another important aspect that works in favour of insurgent groups and against governments in both the countries is local support for such rebel groups. As all these insurgent groups are ethnicity-based, they are mostly backed by some local civilian support. Furthermore, there are several political leaders who support these groups to further their own personal gains. Most of these separatist rebel groups are powerful both in terms of financial aid and advanced weaponry and proper training in different al-Qaeda camps. One of these groups is Abu Sayyaf, whose insurgent activities have affected both Thailand and Philippines. In addition, the porous and the easily accessible borders in this region facilitate these groups immensely. These facets make the task of initiating peace in this region more difficult.

The recent violence in Philippines, where the stand-off between the Filipino army and the rebel groups still continues, has increases the fear of a widening insurgent threat in the region. In order to restrain this threat, domestic peace initiatives alone will not be sufficient; they must instead be combined with regional initiatives.