This paper examines the factors behind the reluctance of the ruling elites in the Sulu islands, in the Philippines, to join a region that will be dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from central Mindanao.


The plebiscite on a new law to overhaul autonomy arrangements in the southern Philippines—if and when it happens—will be a crucial test of support for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) outside of its stronghold in central Mindanao. Ruling politicians in the ethnically and geographically separate Sulu archipelago are wary of the MILF and the peace agreements it negotiated. President Benigno Aquino III had assumed he could lean on them to rally their constituents to vote in favour. Now weakened by a botched counter-terrorism operation in January 2015, the president is struggling to implement the peace agreements he hoped would be his legacy. Political interests within Muslim Mindanao will determine the outcome of the plebiscite, with much hinging on the stance of one man: Sakur Tan.

Congress must pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to implement the peace agreements. Its key provisions relate to the core territory, a plebiscite to determine the wish of residents to opt in or out, transitional arrangements, the adoption of a parliamentary system of government, powers over local governments; and fiscal autonomy. The new region, to be called “the Bangsamoro” will replace the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). This should be the stronger, more powerful and better funded regional government the MILF and the rival Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have always wanted.

Before the counter-terrorism operation in Mamasapano, there was a risk that three of the five provinces in ARMM—Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, which make up the Sulu archipelago—might opt out, as ruling families worried that their power bases could be undercut. The Aquino government had a strategy to deal with this likely opposition. It counted on the desire of the provincial governors, all professing allegiance to the ruling Liberal Party, to stay in the good graces of a popular president. If that failed, the president could use stronger pressure tactics.

After the Mamasapano operation ended in the deaths of 44 police, mostly at the hands of the MILF, as well as 17 MILF fighters and several civilians, President Aquino’s support seemed to collapse. Congress suspended for several weeks its deliberations on the BBL, which it had been set to pass in February, and criticisms of the bill suddenly had more traction. In the best case scenario, Congress will still pass a modified version by June 2015, with the plebiscite to follow soon after.

If the plebiscite does go forward, the MILF and the Aquino government need a better strategy for the islands. The MILF is hoping that grassroots support will overcome possible elite opposition, but it has no base in the Sulu archipelago, where sympathy for the MNLF is widespread and its supporters are loath to see ARMM dismantled. Ethnic pride is another factor. Even as the MILF emphasises the umbrella Bangsamoro identity, the Tausug of the archipelago worry about being swamped by the Maguindanao and Maranao that dominate the MILF stronghold of central Mindanao. Many Tausug feel that their issues, including the irredentist claim to Sabah, will be ignored in an MILF-led government.

While Congress deliberates, the MILF and President Aquino and his advisers should shore up support for the BBL in the islands, regardless of what stance the provincial governors eventually take. The MILF should continue reaching out directly to the MNLF in Sulu to ensure they are part of discussions with the Philippine government. The MILF, the Aquino government and civil society groups need to prepare tailored outreach campaigns to address concerns raised about the BBL in specific constituencies. The Aquino government should build a wider alliance of elites in the island provinces by emphasising the advantages of the new parliamentary system, which has broad appeal across the Bangsamoro. And finally, the MILF should assess carefully whether and how to cut a deal with Sakur Tan to allay his concerns about joining the Bangsamoro.

This paper examines political dynamics in the Sulu archipelago leading up to and after the Mamasapano incident. It looks at the complex interests of the different stakeholders and the resistance to change. It also assesses where and why the peace agreements have gained support in the islands, and what this means for the plebiscite, should it happen before President Aquino leaves office. It is based on a visit to the Philippines in March 2015 and extensive interviews in Cotabato City, Zamboanga City and Manila.

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