Five months into Duterte’s presidency, there are worrying signs that the long-running peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front may be off track, Nathan Shea writes.

On Monday 28 November, an unexploded improvised explosive device was found in a trash can less than 100 metres from the US embassy in Manila. The bomb—similar in design to the one that killed 14 people in a Davao marketplace on 2 September—could mark a concerning new phase in the conflict with Moro separatist groups. Rebel groups aligned with Islamic State are on the rise in the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao, with their presence threatening the fragile peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Amid this uncertainty, the new government has put forward an ambitious plan for bringing peace to the region. And though locals are optimistic that Duterte—the first president from Mindanao—will deliver on the plan, continued setbacks risk greater fracturing of the already splintered Moro fronts, while leaving to fester conditions that embolden a new generation of Islamic extremists.

In a conflict that has seethed for over four decades, there is urgent concern that further delays will set the Mindanao peace process back a generation.

Duterte has inherited one of the world’s most stubborn, violent conflicts. Beginning in 1997, nearly two decades of negotiations with the MILF had appeared to reach a conclusion when former President Aquino III finalised the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March 2014. Confidence was high that Congress would soon pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the key legislation that would establish a new autonomous region in the west of Mindanao.

Those halcyon days now appear long gone. The peace process was derailed in January 2015 after a rogue operation by the Philippines National Police in the small province of Mamasapano led to heavy clashes and the deaths of 44 of their Special Action Force personnel. The outrage that followed eroded mainstream political will for the peace process, and with that, support for the draft BBL. Aquino’s legacy of a final Bangsamoro peace agreement lay in tatters.

Now Duterte, the self-styled ‘Moro people’s president’, has in his first few months reached out to all corners of Mindanao in an effort to engage those previously sidelined. His Peace and Development Roadmap [pdf] not only aims to move forward with the implementation of the CAB and finalise the peace process with the MILF but also to conclude the peace process with the other major Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Alongside these negotiations, Duterte has restarted the peace process with the Communist Party of the Philippines, while also looking to finalise peace agreements with the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army in Northern Luzon. Supporting all of these efforts is a move to dramatically increase socio-economic development in conflict-affected areas in pursuit of greater social cohesion, conflict transformation and good governance.

The framework is bold and should be praised for its positive, inclusive agenda. Achieving such a task, however, brings pronounced challenges.

The Duterte government’s move to press ahead with implementation of the CAB appeared promising at first. Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process, Jesus Dureza, announced in remarks alongside a meeting with the MILF in Kuala Lumpur in August that the parties “agreed that the negotiations phase is over and now it is time to implement what we have agreed we will do.”

As such, the meeting in Malaysia led to an agreement to expand the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the multiparty body responsible for drafting a new BBL. The new BTC would grow from 15 members to 21; though progress following the meeting faltered as the necessary executive order sat unsigned on Duterte’s desk until early November.

Instead, the government has spent the last three months widening the number of parties to the peace process. While the MILF retain their majority and the chair of the expanded BTC, it was revealed in October that it would also include three members of the rival ‘Sema’ faction of the MNLF. Bizarrely, Nur Misuari, a friend of Duterte and disputed chairman of the MNLF, has refused to work with the BTC and will instead negotiate with the government separately.

The creation of additional negotiating tracks at this late stage of the process is worrying, and will likely distract the enlarged BTC from its task. Not only that, the role of converging the various Bangsamoro interests will not be achieved in the BTC but left instead to Congress, which will be given the heavy-lifting, trying to harmonise legislation that is acceptable to all parties.

How all of this will be achieved is still unclear. Duterte should be careful of relying on his popularity to force cooperation from Congress—as previous presidents have attempted to do. The Mamasapano incident in 2015 shows congressional compliance can be fickle, and the historic high levels of trust in Duterte’s leadership will surely drop, potentially quite dramatically when compared with previous governments. While the current crackdown on illegal drugs is proving popular, it is yet to be seen how Filipinos will respond to some of his more bureaucratic agenda items; foremost among which is his plan to introduce federalism.

The Bangsamoro autonomous region has been earmarked as a potential test case for how a federal system might operate, with the BTC also empowered to make suggestions for necessary constitutional reform. While the Moro fronts are broadly in support of federalism, there is a clear danger that the process of establishing Bangsamoro autonomy might be hijacked by constitutional reform, with the final outcome being a significant watering down of what was agreed in the CAB. The MILF has repeatedly called for the implementation of the ‘BBL before federalism’, but in what now is an increasingly crowded environment, their ability to influence the outcomes appears diminished. Should the MILF find themselves sidelined there is a significant risk that impatient commanders will defect, and the Moro fronts splinter further.

The expanding number of ‘peace tables’ at the national level is being mirrored by developments locally. Drawing upon Duterte’s directive for greater inclusivity, newly appointed government panel chair Irene Santiago is pursuing Peoples’ Peace Tables: an initiative to support increased local participation. The tables appear to signal greater involvement of local civil society organisations in regional peacebuilding initiatives.

Conversely, the Duterte administration is using its pursuit of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘convergence’ as a method for excluding international interlocutors. In particular, the International Contact Group —a hybrid third-party to the negotiations consisting of four states and four international NGOs—was excluded from the closed-door meeting in Kuala Lumpur in August, while subsequent talks have taken place in Davao without their participation.

Ongoing international involvement is not essential, and International Contact Group members have spoken publicly of the need for a coordinated exit strategy. There is also a clear benefit to investing in stronger domestic peace institutions. What is of concern, however, is that a hollowing out of the peace architecture at such a perilous stage risks weakening the process as a whole. Established in 2009, the International Contact Group was influential in legitimising the position of the MILF, while also providing key programmatic and material expertise to the BTC. Since July, however, without a clear directive from Irene Santiago, international actors have been left on the sidelines, uncertain of how they might best be able to support the process as it moves forward.

There’s a lot at risk in the Philippines, and should Mindanao’s insecurity metastasise it risks undermining Duterte’s peace agenda and threatening his presidency. Unfortunately, time may not be on their side, particularly as a generation of Moro youth grow increasingly frustrated with unfulfilled promises of peace. As the sun sets on a generation of Muslim leaders committed to a peaceful Mindanao, there’s an urgency that a solution is found sooner, not later.

Nathan Shea is a research associate and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and has recently returned from eight weeks in Manila and Mindanao speaking with people involved with the peace process. The views expressed here are his own.