Filipino Muslim scholar sees bright future for new autonomous region

Ronron Calunsod, Kyodo News

Posted at Feb 04 2019 04:52 PM

MANILA - Nearly three decades since he defended his doctoral dissertation about a non-violent, non-secessionist formula in addressing the armed struggle of minority Muslims in the southern Philippines, academic Macapado Muslim was overjoyed when the government in July last year passed a law creating an Islamic autonomous region there.

A product of a 2014 peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim rebel group that started waging war in the early 1970s, the Bangsamoro Organic Law was ratified in a plebiscite on Jan. 21.

The referendum result paves the way for the restructuring of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the further empowerment of its local government.

"Interestingly, the BOL satisfies my 1990 peace formula on how to solve the Mindanao conflict," Muslim, 62, wrote in his newly published book, "The 2018 Bangsamoro Organic Law in the Philippines: Solving the Mindanao Conflict with Autonomy Plus Compensatory Justice."

Muslim, who earned his masters and doctorate degrees in political science from the University of Hawaii, launched his latest publication on Tuesday at the De La Salle University campus in Manila.

Four days earlier, a government agency officially proclaimed the ratification of the autonomy law by Muslims in the southern Philippines who voted in the referendum.

"It's regional euphoria all over," he said at the book launch, describing the mood "of the great majority of the Bangsamoro people" after the law's ratification. A follow-through plebiscite will be conducted on Wednesday in other areas that are seeking to join the new region.

Bangsamoro refers to an identity of Filipino citizens considered as "natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands" at the time of Spanish colonization in the early part of the 16th century. Their spouses and descendants also have the right to be identified as such.

Muslim, a native of the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi, said in his book that what triggered the large-scale armed conflict in Mindanao was the "starkly dismal situation of the Moro society in the early 1970s."

They were "economically marginalized and impoverished; politically weakened, dominated and inferiorized; culturally constricted, trivialized and dispossessed of some aspects of their distant Moro cultural and Islamic identity; and their collective security and safety undermined and threatened," he wrote, tracing the problems to "the incorporation of the Moroland into the Philippine state" and "colonization."

An attempt to solve the conflict through a 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, the precursor of the MILF, did not succeed because of the "flawed autonomy" that the national government granted to the region, Muslim wrote further.

On the contrary, it "metastasized" and "became virulent" with the emergence of armed Islamist groups including the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the Maute Group, he lamented.

The principal strength of the BOL is that it provides the Bangsamoro region with powers to address governance concerns, for example, the Sharia legal system and Islamic schools, he told reporters after the launch.

Influenced by the best practices in autonomy governance in other countries with ethnic conflicts or cultural diversity-related problems and challenges, the ratified law, Muslim said, "has great potentials to succeed and finally solve the Mindanao conflict, given its responsiveness to the principal grievances of the Bangsamoro."

"If implemented properly, the BOL can create conditions that can eventually lead to the final resolution of the conflict, thereby addressing the immediate and long-term requirements of sustainable development and peace, not only in the (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region), but also in Mindanao and the whole Philippines," he said.

Among his recommendations are the implementation of massive capacity-building programs for combatants and their supporters, the introduction of large-scale livelihood cum entrepreneurship programs, and active involvement of the national government, the international community, the business sector and other stakeholders.

There must also be a widespread information campaign for the Bangsamoro to be able to gain support, especially from the Christian majority in the country. As recommended to him, Muslim is considering giving copies of his new book to the Department of Education so that young students across the country will have better understanding of the Bangsamoro.

Meanwhile, Muslim expressed optimism that Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the chairman of the MILF, "can provide a strong leadership" in the new Bangsamoro government. "With 46 years of failed peace process, whoever you install there will strive to do good for the region," he told reporters.

Muslim emphasized that "the immediate effective implementation of the BOL can shield Muslim Mindanao and the whole country from violent extremism and terrorism now menacingly spreading in many parts of the world, including several countries in Southeast Asia."

At the book launch, Muslim confessed to being "demoralized" by the Jan. 27 bombings that tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral on the southern island of Jolo, where Muslim militants are active. The attack killed more than 20 people and injured around 100 others.

"To my mind, the latest bombing in Jolo underscores the need to find a final, non-violent, peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in Mindanao. It's also a loud call for united national action to address the problem," he said.

His observation was shared by political scientist and university professor Julio Teehankee, who attended the book launch. "The reprehensible bombing of the Jolo cathedral a few days after the successful ratification of the BOL is a stark reminder that the challenges to achieving peace in Mindanao remain," Teehankee said.

The Mindanao conflict has claimed the lives of around 120,000 people and caused the displacement of more than 3.5 million others.

"The case of Mindanao is already 46 years old. We should not allow this problem to go beyond the next three years. It must be solved now, not later, not by my children, and their children," said Muslim, who grew up seeing relatives and friends joining the rebellion.