Price tag for Mindanao peace: P115 billion -- and counting

By Gigi Grande, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 26 2015 08:57 PM | Updated as of Feb 28 2015 01:25 AM

Last of 2 parts

TIMES have been rough for Domino Paino since he came to Manila 25 years ago. With no steady job, six children to raise, and rent to pay, he can barely make ends meet.

Yet Domino isn’t complaining. On the contrary, he considers himself lucky.

Before he came to Manila, he spent 17 years toiling on the battlefield as "Commander Domino," a leader of a group of 100 fully armed members of the secessionist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in Lanao del Norte.

Nothing, he said, could be worse than his old life.

One of thousands of rebels who surrendered arms between 1986 and 1991, Domino said he would never forget the horrors of war.

“I saw a lot of people die. Cousins, nephews,” Domino said in Filipino. “None of my brothers were killed, but a lot of friends died on the battlefield. I counted 23 (in all).”

The government signed a peace deal with the MNLF in 1996. But a breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), refused to honor the agreement and continued to fight.

Manila is now home to Domino, but he often worries about family and friends back in Lanao. “Some of them are now generals of the MILF. But it’s the civilians I really feel sorry for. They’re tired of evacuating. For as long as there’s no peace, they will have to keep moving or they’ll die.”

And many have already perished.

TALKS + MONEY = PEACE?

Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, chairman of the House Defense committee, said over 150,000 soldiers and policemen, rebels and civilians have died in Muslim Mindanao in the conflict that began over four decades ago. “Peace must be pursued,” said Biazon, a former Marine battalion commander in Sulu.

To the Aquino administration, the pursuit of peace involves two things: a negotiated political settlement and billions of pesos.

So far, the price tag for peace with the MILF runs to P115 billion--and counting.

The first allocation was made when the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) was created in December 2012, two months after government and the MILF signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

GOV'T-MILF PEACE PACT

Tasked with drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the commission received an initial P100-million funding administered by BTC chair and MILF chief negotiator Mohager Iqbal.

In February 2013, the Sajaharta Bangsamoro Program (SBP) was launched, with government appropriating P566 million for socio-economic and infrastructure projects that would benefit MILF combatants, families and their communities.

But the biggest chunk was announced in early February, two weeks after the Mamasapano tragedy that killed 44 members of the Special Action Force, an elite police group tasked to serve an arrest warrant on international terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir, alias Marwan, last January 25. Marwan was eventually killed.

The Department of Budget and Management said P2.69 billion from the 2015 budget had been allocated “in support of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” that government and the MILF signed in March 2014.

P220-B DEVELOPMENT PLAN

But there’s more coming, even if Iqbal, in a letter to a Senate committee, said the MILF remains a "revolutionary organization” until the peace agreement is fully implemented.

“It’s very rare that a rebel group still negotiating for a final solution is participating in a development plan,” said Louie Montalbo, Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process executive director, referring to the Bangsamoro Development Plan put together by the MILF’s development arm, the Bangsamoro Development Agency.

The first phase has a funding requirement of P220 billion, with projects heavy on infrastructure and social services set to roll out in 2015-2016.

Of the P220-billion, government aims to bankroll half, according to the Third Party Monitoring Team report released early this month. The other half would come from the international community. Which means, government is ready to pour another P110 billion to woo the MILF.

P700-M FOR PLEBISCITE

Montalbo said some of the MILF’s proposed projects have been built into the 2015 budget. Figures were not available as of writing.

And should the proposed BBL be passed, government would have to spend an estimated P700 million more to hold a plebiscite to determine the geographical scope of the Bangsamoro.

P1-B FOR THE TRANSITION

Another P1 billion will be allocated to the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority which will bridge the period between the plebiscite and the election of the Bangsamoro Parliament in 2016.

A P70-billion budget for the Bangsamoro government’s first year in office is another matter altogether.

SAF 44's RELATIVES OUTRAGED

Relatives of the slain 44 police commandos were outraged to hear about the huge sums.

“It’s our children who died serving this country,” said Telly Sumbilla, mother of PO3 John Lloyd Sumbilla, a sniper for the blocking force that went to Mamasapano. “Why should the government help those who killed our loved ones? Why not help us instead?”

The government has committed nearly P25 million in benefits for those the SAF 44 left behind--in varying amounts depending on the slain policemen's rank and length of service.

Sumbilla said the amount would never be enough.

HOW TO STOP MORE KILLINGS

“We recognize where the anger is coming from,” Montalbo said. “But how can we avoid having more widows and orphans? To us, the way to avoid (it) is by staying the course as far as the peace process is concerned, and that means bringing in development efforts.”

Amid allegations the MILF had been beefing up forces while talking peace, Montalbo said the MILF has not received cash from government. He appealed to critics to understand that the MILF is not the only beneficiary of the multi-billion-peso projects. “The entire Bangsamoro benefits (from it),” he said.

VIOLENT INCIDENTS DOWN

Before the bloody Mamasapano encounter, the International Monitoring Team “recorded only five relatively minor ceasefire (violation) incidents during the 12 months of 2014.”

An average of five incidents per year have been recorded since 2010, a huge drop from 167 incidents per year in 2008 and 2009, according to the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) report.

According to Montalbo, this could be attributed, in part, to both sides’ show of sincerity and government’s gestures of goodwill through projects like the SBP, even if only P93 million, or only 17 percent of the total SBP budget, had been utilized as of December 2014.

“We wish the disbursement of funds was faster, but Sajahatra was able to achieve some things,” Montalbo said.

THE REAL PRICE

For Biazon, billions of pesos worth of projects for the MILF can be considered “confidence-building measures” that must be carried out parallel to the Mamasapano investigations and debates on the BBL. “These projects are needed so we can keep talking peace,” he said.

He said no one wants peace more than soldiers and policemen who risk their lives on the battlefield. He’s certain this is what the SAF 44 would have wanted had they survived.

Domino agrees. He recalled that up in the mountains, all his comrades could ever talk about during their waking hours was war. But he knows they too dreamed of peace.

While P115 billion may seem staggering, to those who have lived through the war like Biazon, and Domino, the price of peace cannot be counted in billions, but in the number of lives lost, and the promise of normal lives for the next generation of Filipinos in Mindanao.