TOKYO – When the Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrilla movement took up arms in the Philippines in the 1960’s, Ferdinand Marcos had yet to become the country's president – let alone dictator. Despite the country’s many political transformations in the last half-century, the MILF’s campaign to achieve independence for the Bangsamoro nation – whose territory, they claim, covers the islands of Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu, and Sabah – remained constant, until President Benigno Aquino III resolved to change it.
The MILF was not deterred by the popular overthrow of Marcos’s 20-year dictatorship in 1986, following the assassination of the opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr. Nor did the establishment of democracy – now deeply entrenched – inspire the group’s leaders to reconsider their approach. The MILF remained engaged in a brutal campaign of beheadings, assassination, kidnappings, and indiscriminate butchery.
Then, last January, Aquino managed to achieve a landmark deal that finally ended Mindanao’s agony. This is one of the most remarkable feats of peacemaking in Asia since World War II, and at least as worthy of international recognition as former Finnish President and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Marti Ahtissari’s role in brokering peace in Aceh, Indonesia, in 2005. In fact, given the myriad security and political risks that Aquino ran in concluding a peace deal with the MILF, he may be an even worthier Nobel laureate.
Aquino’s approach to the negotiations reflected his recognition that the MILF had twice used peace talks – once brokered by Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi – as a cynical ploy to buy time to regroup and raise funds (including from Al Qaeda). With freshly restocked arsenals, they would relaunch their campaign to seize Mindanao by force.
Against this background, it is no surprise that, when Aquino relaunched stalled peace talks in 2012, the Filipino people were highly skeptical. But, over time, the effort gained credibility. Though questions about the peace agreement’s durability remain, with full disarmament yet to take place, the political autonomy granted to the country’s Muslim areas seems to have persuaded most MILF fighters that the time has come to end the carnage.
For the people of Mindanao, this is a life-changing development. In the few short months since the peace deal was reached, Filipino and foreign investment has been flowing into the island. With nearly half of Mindanao’s population living below the poverty line, these funds could not be more critical.
But the benefits of Aquino’s leadership are not limited to Mindanao. His entire presidency, which began in 2010, has been characterized by the creativity and doggedness that made peace with the MILF possible.
Whereas other Filipino leaders – including Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, who was elected president after Marcos’s overthrow – spoke out against corruption, Aquino has attacked it at its roots. He has brought to justice not only small-time wrongdoers – or “flies,” as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calls such people – but also “tigers” like Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who helped overthrow Marcos and bring Corazon Aquino to power two decades ago. As a result, the Philippines has dramatically improved its ranking in Transparency International’s annual corruption index, rising from a 134th-place tie with Nigeria in 2010, to 94th place, alongside India, last year.
Aquino’s efforts to fight corruption and rebuild his country’s economic foundations has enabled the Philippines – at long last – to become Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy, with annual GDP growth of 7.2% last year. While growth is expected to slow slightly this year, to 6.5%, the Philippines can now be counted among Asia’s “tiger” economies.
Of course, the country still has a long way to go. Some ten million Filipinos – one-quarter of the workforce – are compelled to seek employment overseas, owing to inadequate opportunities at home. If the Philippines is to attract enough investment to achieve living standards comparable to Malaysia and Thailand, Aquino must remain persistent in his efforts to open the economy and curtail corruption. Fortunately, he seems determined to do so.
Aquino’s foreign policy has also been characterized by the same resoluteness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his willingness to stand up to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Indeed, the Philippines is challenging China’s claims in the International Court of Arbitration, using provisions from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Aquino’s stern criticism of China’s expansionist policies has certainly not endeared him to the Chinese. But regional powers like the United States and Japan have supported his stance, with Japan promising to deliver enhanced equipment for the Philippine Coast Guard. And the Filipino people undoubtedly appreciate his tenacity in protecting their interests.
Aquino’s success in bringing the decades-old MILF rebellion to a peaceful end highlights a courage and tenacity that will enable him to play a key role in reining in China’s regional ambitions. Just as David’s ingenuity enabled him, against all odds, to defeat Goliath, Aquino’s bold and calculated leadership can succeed in bolstering stability and security throughout Asia by bringing China, perhaps against its will, into a rules-based regional order.