The Road to Peace in Muslim Mindanao: Challenges and Opportunities

The Asia Foundation

Posted at Jan 13 2021 12:00 PM | Updated as of Jan 13 2021 12:01 PM

The coming of the New Year projects a ray of hope into a tumultuous and dreary 2020 in which the entire nation came to a political, economic, social, and cultural year-long pause due to the ravages of the health crisis. But hope is on the horizon as a solution draws nearer and nearer. 

For the people of Muslim Mindanao, another source of hope is the work and efforts being made to realize and implement the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that has given birth to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This change represents the aspirations and dreams of countless generations not only of Muslims but of indigenous peoples and non-Muslims now residing in the region. 

The challenges ahead are formidable but the strength, courage, and perseverance of the people of the Bangsamoro are equal to the task of building a truly representative and democratically elected Parliament. The stakes are high for the Bangsamoro government to achieve this in the forthcoming elections. What needs to be done and how can the people of Muslim Mindanao be able to achieve the dream that has eluded their forebears in centuries past?

Continuing this important conversation are Karen Davila and Ron Cruz with key government leaders and stakeholders in the Bangsamoro community on ANC Presents: Bangsamoro and Beyond. In partnership with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), The Asia Foundation, and the British Embassy in Manila, the special forum aired on December 30, 2020 on ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC). 

The Road to Peace in Muslim Mindanao: Challenges and Opportunities 1
Member of Interim Bangsamoro Parliament Atty. Nabil Tan, head of the BARMM Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Body Mohagher Iqbal, with Karen Davila

Here are some highlights of the forum.

Updates on the Peace Process

More than a year since the establishment of the BARMM as part of the peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the new regional government is undergoing plenty of adjustments. 

"We have already hurdled the most difficult, the most arduous part of the search for peace and justice in Mindanao and we are now in the implementing stage," said Mohagher Iqbal who heads the BARMM Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Body. "We are implementing all those agreements signed between the government, the Republic of the Philippines, and the MILF."

One of the current issues that the BARMM is raising is the extension of the original three-year transition period. This means that instead of having its first regular elections in 2022, they are looking to push it back to 2025. That is because the transition entails plenty of political, social, and economic changes for the region which, according to them, will be quite difficult to do in just three years. 

The MILF has, from the very beginning, requested for a six-year transition period because what will happen is not simply a transfer of power or a change of name. There is also the matter of fully establishing the new form of government, one that is a parliamentary democracy, and the faithful implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law.

''The transition is not simply about a transition from ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) to BARMM, it is also a transition for the MILF from a revolutionary, armed group to one that would now transition into a political party that will participate in democratic and peaceful processes for change,'' said Minister Naguib Sinarimbo of the BARMM Ministry of Interior and Local Government.

There are two important aspects of the peace process: the political track and the normalization track. Both are intertwined; if one does not move, the other will not move as well - that is why some delays cannot be rushed. 

The normalization track includes decommissioning fighters and transforming their lives from being combatants to leading productive civilian lives. 

In particular, Assistant Secretary Wilben Mayor, OPAPP Spokesperson, shared that they had already decommissioned almost 12,000 former combatants, each provided with 100,000 pesos cash assistance lodged with the Social Welfare Department. He also made assurances that OPAPP will continue to focus on employment facilitation and sustainable livelihood assistance for decommissioned combatants.

"As far as the MILF Peace Implementing Panel is concerned, we are about 30-40% in our implementation of the normalization track," Minister Iqbal added.

With such complex internal and external adjustments, each with their own process, the new autonomous regional government is determined to follow the sequence without cutting corners to guarantee the implementation of peace, justice, and development in Mindanao. 

Enhancing Political and People Participation

Much like the governance system of the United Kingdom, the new Bangsamoro political system is adopting a parliamentary form of government. 

"The strength of this political process rests on high-level political participation and the inclusive systems that are being established. I hope, through our work with the authorities, we are able to make our contribution to achieving that," said British Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce.

Currently, Mindanao is the least developed region with the highest unemployment rate in the Philippines, with violence and the presence of armed groups a norm in the area. That is why its leaders decided on establishing a new political system to better serve the developmental needs of the Bangsamoro.

One of the provisions of the Bangsamoro Organic Law safeguards the democratic political system and encourages the participation of the people – that means everyone in the region, regardless of class, gender, religion, or affiliations, will be heard. 

''There will be three categories of seats. Half of the seats will be elected through proportional representation, 40% district representation, and then there will be 10% reserved for the different sectors,'' Minister Raissa Jajurie of the BARMM Ministry of Social Services and Development said.

This is meant to encourage underrepresented and underserved members to have a voice so that the needs of these marginalized groups will be included in the legislative agenda. Even people who are not part of the known political parties can participate. 

Still, the success of the Bangsamoro is rooted in the election of the leaders and the governance of the parliament. 

Even with calls for the extension of the transition period, preparations for elections are underway. Yet a big challenge here is the current health crisis affecting registration turnout. 

"Although our commission has innovated some online projects in order to have the participation of those who are at least apprehensive in coming into the Office of the Registration Officer, to have the scheduling online, still the turnout is not as expected," said Atty. Ray Sumalipao, BARMM Regional Director of the Commission on Elections. "It is only 30% of the expected turnout."

The Road to Peace in Muslim Mindanao: Challenges and Opportunities 2
Minister Raissa Jajurie of the BARMM Ministry of Social Services and Development, Atty. Ray Sumalipao BARMM Regional Director of the Commission on Elections, and Atty. Laisa Masuhud Alamia, Member and Minority Leader of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority

Women and Minorities in the BARMM

Gender equality and the concerns of the minority are also brought up in the conversation.

According to Atty. Laisa Masuhud Alamia, Member and Minority Leader of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, gender equality and justice are in the laws already, with a Gender Development Code in the works. The BOL has several provisions that promote and protect women's rights. Referendum mechanisms are present so that when it comes to important issues in the Bangsamoro region, all sectors will be consulted and will participate in the decision-making process. There are also reserved parliament seats to represent the marginalized and vulnerable sectors so that their voices will be heard. 

Despite all these provisions in the law and seats provided for the minorities, there is much work to be done. 

"We know that in lived realities of women, not just in the BARMM but in the whole country, even if women are there, if they do not have voices, if they are not the ones making the decisions, or if they are just there because they are proxy decision makers of the men who are the more powerful ones in the clan, in the family, in the political party, then it would not be a meaningful participation," said Atty. Alamia. "So, I think it is a top priority also to make sure that Bangsamoro women are empowered."

To empower Bangsamoro women, they are starting with education, orientation, and helping women to raise their voices so that they can be part of the decision-making process. The same goes for the indigenous communities and other sectors that are often underrepresented in the legislation. 

Voice of the Netizens

An important component in every Bangsamoro and Beyond Forum is making sure that the thoughts and queries of the people on social media are heard. 

Joining the conversation using #BangsaForum on social media, some netizens shared their thoughts on the whole process, praising the positive intergenerational power dynamics of the BARMM. Others shared their hopes that the BOL will be implemented right by their leaders. A netizen raised the suggestion of creating a new railway line to aid the development of the region. 

Another asked about the health crisis and calamity preparedness of the Bangsamoro people, to which Minister Iqbal mentioned that the 2021 budget included responsive health crisis related programs. 

The people have also brought forth issues concerning the rights of indigenous peoples and the participation of these groups and non-Moro settlers in the BARMM. To this, Atty. Alamia responded that provisions in the BOL are in place to safeguard the voices of the underrepresented, adhering to the laws and practices of the IPs, thereby, encouraging inclusivity for all groups. 

There is also the risk of violent extremism in the region. Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, also the BARMM Spokesperson, replied that the Bangsamoro government proposes to address and remove the legitimate grievances of the people such as demands for political participation, right to self-determination, and equitable, economic development, to lessen the vulnerability of the community to these threats. 

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Minister Naguib Sinarimbo of the BARMM Ministry of Interior and Local Government & OPAPP Asec. Wilben Mayor

While President Rodrigo Duterte is in favor of giving the new Bangsamoro Regional Government a three-year extension, following budget setbacks and delays like the health crisis of 2020, it still needs the approval of the Congress to be finalized. 

As the Bangsamoro leaders have expressed, delivering essential services to establish the new self-governing region cannot be completed in a day. Multiple internal and external processes are at play in this transition and it is imperative that it is done right to pave a sustainable road for a peaceful Mindanao. 

So, is long-lasting peace possible for the region? Only time can truly tell. But with proper governance and genuine care for the people, the Bangsamoro will be able to rise from decades of conflict and socioeconomic challenges to a new era of sustainable peace and better lives for all. 

If you missed the special forum, you may still catch it on the following replays: January 17, 2021 at 7:00 pm and February 6, 2021 at 7:00 pm. 

To take part in the conversation, you may follow Bangsamoro and Beyond's Facebook page and fill out the survey form. #BangsaForum

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