Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte kicked off his third year in office by signing the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), paving the way for the creation of a new Muslim-majority sub-state entity in the Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation.

While the new law represents a major step towards peace in the long restive southern island of Mindanao, the government will be challenged to bridge longstanding ethnic-tribal rivalries among Muslim Filipinos, or Moros, and address the immense and deep developmental challenges that have fueled the conflict.

The BOL, previously known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), is part of the historic agreement between the Philippine government and insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014.

Voters in Muslim-majority provinces will have the option of approving the creation of and their inclusion in the new proposed political entity through a plebiscite later this year.

The Duterte administration hopes to win sufficient support, both among the public as well as the Moro political elite, for a smooth transition towards the establishment of a Bangsamoro, or nation of Moros, through a democratic vote.

Yet the challenges ahead will be daunting, as the combination of ethnic tribal rivalries, weak state institutions, widespread poverty and unemployment, and religious extremism could all militate against the political entity’s significant potential.

To be sure, the BOL represents a milestone in Manila’s decades-long efforts to address centuries of religious strife and intermittent conflict in the southern island of Mindanao.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reflective in military garbs. Photo: Reuters

Throughout Philippine history, the Moros (imperial Spain’s pejorative description of indigenous Muslims) preserved a unique cultural identity vis-à-vis the majority Christian population.

It was not until the advent of American colonialism in the early 20th century that Manila began to subjugate and control Mindanao’s various sultanates. Since the 1970s, however, assorted Moro insurgencies have challenged through armed resistance Manila’s hegemony in favor of local autonomy.

The upshot has been massive death and devastation, increased marginalization and immiseration of Moros, and an almost total absence of functioning state institutions across Mindanao’s Muslim-majority provinces.

The Duterte administration hopes to address the roots of the conflict by granting Moros greater socio-economic as well political autonomy, though still within the framework of the Philippine constitution.

In this sense, the proposed Bangsamoro is similar though not completely identical to the special autonomous regions seen in Basque in Spain and Hong Kong as well as Macau in China.

The Moro peoples will have the autonomy to determine their own unique institutions of governance, including the usage of Sharia courts. In exchange, the MILF will decommission and disarm tens of thousands of its fighters, who are expected to be recruited into state institutions as part of a long-term reintegration project.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces raise their fists during a show of force inside the camp in Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines March 27, 2014. The Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), on Thursday signed a final peace pact, ending about 45 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people in the country's south. REUTERS/Stringer (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR3ITSE
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces raise their fists during a show of force at Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines. Photo: Reuters / Stringer 

Under a 75-25 wealth sharing arrangement, the Bangsamoro authority will enjoy significant fiscal leeway. It will only be required to remit a quarter of its domestically generated revenues to Manila. Currently, local governmental units are expected to remit 60% of their local revenues back to the national government.

The national government, meanwhile, will allocate close to 5% of its revenues, amounting to more than US$1 billion, to facilitate the development and strengthening of Bangsamoro’s emerging sub-state institutions. Decisions regarding national defense, monetary matters, and law enforcement, however, will remain under Manila’s control.

It took years of painstaking negotiations among legislators, the MILF, and other stakeholders for the BOL’s final version to be approved. The previous Benigno Aquino administration failed to secure legislative support for its 2014 peace agreement with the MILF due to a lack of public support.

This was largely due to the Mamasapano massacre in early 2015, where MILF rebels killed several Philippine Special Forces members during a botched counter-terror raid. Widespread public opposition to the peace agreement built in massacre’s wake, which dissuaded many legislators from supporting the Bangsamoro law.

As the first Filipino president from Mindanao, Duterte has made the Bangsamoro issue a key policy priority. Last year’s months-long siege of Mindanao’s Marawi City by Islamic State-affiliated rebels emboldened him to push for a lasting political solution to the conflict, lest religious extremism gains even greater traction.

The real battle, however, is just beginning. First, the Duterte administration will have to navigate explosive ethnic-tribal rivalries, which some fear may nip the prospects of a Bangsamoro peace in the bud.

After all, the new proposed political entity is set to supplant the more limited Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which covers mostly ethnic Tausug-dominated provinces under the leadership of the former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another Muslim rebel group.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (L) shaked hands with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, after a court suspended a warrant for Misuari's arrest, at Jolo, in southern Philippines November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Nickee Butlangan
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (L) shakes hands with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Jesus Dureza, after a court suspended a warrant for Misuari’s arrest, Jolo, November 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Nickee Butlangan

The proposed Bangsamoro, however, will likely be dominated by, at least in the initial stages and in certain regions, the Maguindanao-led MILF, a splinter faction of the MNLF. It’s altogether unclear if the MNLF’s leadership, particularly MNLF founder Nur Misuari, will be amenable to the new political project.

“I’d like to talk to Nur…so that we can have [the Bangsamoro] by the end of the year,” Duterte said in a speech in Zamboanga Sibugay just days after signing the BOL while pleading for the Tausug leader to support the Bangsamoro project.

Duterte is concerned Misuari and his armed splinter faction of the MNLF could act as spoilers, as they did in their impromptu invasion of Zamboanga City in 2013, a convulsion which disrupted the formation of as perceived as MILF-dominated Bangsamoro project.

“Nur, if you are my brother, Nur, if you are listening, I would like to thank you. You are able to control your forces. Let us talk because we are old, and fighting is no longer an option for you and for me.”

The second major challenge will concern the MNLF leadership’s ability to make a quick and successful transition from a coterie of rebels and revolutionaries into a functioning governing class.

“This is one challenge that we all need to be aware of,” MILF chief Murad Ibrahim said during a recent gathering of supporters in Maguindanao, noting that most of his men have never served in public office. “But we will be forced because this will be a responsibility that we will have.”

As the largely failed ARMM shows, former rebels often struggle to make the transition from fighting to governing. The MILF will thus need all support it can get from the national government and other Moro groups if it is to succeed.

Abu Missry Mama (front, 2nd L), spokesman and senior leader of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) arrives along with his armed guards for an interview with AFP in Maguindanao, in southern island of Mindanao on March 28, 2014.  A day after his former comrades in arms signed a treaty to end 42 years of bloodshed in the Philippines, an ageing Muslim guerrilla leader packing a rusty handgun vowed to fight on.   AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
MILF breakaway and Islamic State-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao in a file photo. AFP/Ted Aljibe

There are also concerns about the willingness of entrenched political dynasties in ethnically mixed and more prosperous provinces, including in Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, to join the Bangsamoro.

Some regional leaders may instead opt to stay under the distant and less uncertain jurisdiction of faraway imperial Manila than place their lot in with the uncertain prospects of a new political entity under the unproven MILF.

Religious extremists and terrorist organizations will also likely exploit any opportunity to question the merits of the Bangsamoro and call for more radical and violent resistance against a scheme they view as selling out to the national government.

With high rates of youth unemployment and deep-seated grievances among Moros across the country, radical groups are still in a strong position to mobilize support against any political compromise with Manila.

According to recent surveys, a majority of Filipinos are largely ‘neutral’ on the Bangsamoro issue, a reflection of the lingering skepticism about the wisdom and necessity of the scheme.

There is also a possibility that some of the BOL’s critics will challenge its constitutionality at the Supreme Court, by portraying it as a threat to the Christian-majority country’s territorial integrity and internal coherence.

The challenges ahead may seem overwhelming, but if Duterte manages to shepherd a successful transition, he could go down in history as an unprecedented peace-maker on his home island of Mindanao.