Unfinished business in Bangsamoro


By Marifi S. Jara, Mindanao Bureau Chief

THE NEW Philippine leadership is inheriting a Bangsamoro Region that is at its most peaceful in recent years, and where economic prospects are most auspicious since the 1970s when the armed separatist movement was born.

The past two Presidents, the late Benigno S.C. Aquino III and Rodrigo R. Duterte, laid out the foundations for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) with the signing of the peace agreement in March 2014 and the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in July 2018. 

These milestones made headway despite serious tangles: the 2015 Mamasapano mishap during Mr. Aquino’s term; and the 2017 Marawi siege under Mr. Duterte, the costliest single conflict in post-World War II Philippines in terms of loss of life and property.

BARMM is now a region in transition with an expanded territory, holding greater power for self-determination, and more fiscally independent.

“The gains in peace have facilitated private-sector confidence as evidenced by the increase in investment generation, and socioeconomic improvement as seen in the decrease in poverty incidence which is at its lowest in the BARMM,” Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. said during the Duterte Legacy Summit on May 31.

In 2019, the first year of the transition period under a new regional government, violent incidents dropped by 9% to 2,655 from 2,910 in 2018, according to the Conflict Alert 2020: Enduring Wars report released in January 2021.

Previously, violent incidents stood at 4,363 and 4,140 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The decline was sustained in the first half of 2020 as mobility restrictions were imposed to contain the coronavirus outbreak, based on the report.

The Philippines as a whole climbed four spots to 125th in the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2022.

“The improvement in peacefulness was driven by changes in the Safety and Security and Ongoing Conflict domains,” according to the annual report produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) headquartered in Australia.

“The Philippines has actually improved every year in the last four years,” IEP Founder and Executive Chairman Steve Killelea said in an online interview with BusinessWorld.

He discounted the risk of terrorism intensifying in the Philippines, allowing the country emerging as a hub in Asia.

“The hotspot for terrorism today is the Sahel (region) in Africa, where 10 countries there accounted for 43% of all deaths from terrorism in 2021.”

Mr. Killelea said the biggest threat to peace in the medium term is the economic disruption being felt globally from the tail end of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“There are storm clouds brewing globally that will impact the Philippines,” he said. “The backend of COVID, supply chain issues that push inflation, and now we’ve got the Ukraine war. And even in places as far away as the Philippines, this is having an impact, again on supply chains, but especially on food and the cost of energy.”

“And so economic management becomes exceptionally important,” he said.

Between 2018 and 2021, government data show the Bangsamoro area posted its biggest drop in poverty incidence within the first semester period, with the rate improving to 39.4% last year from 55.9% four years prior.

The latest poverty rate, however, remains the highest among 17 regions in the country.

BARMM’s economy, as measured through gross regional domestic product, posted the second-highest growth among all regions in 2021 at 7.5%, a significant recovery from the contraction of 1.9% in 2020. This is consistent with the national gross domestic product rebound from the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keeping the recovery momentum in the BARMM should not be a problem in terms of financial resources. Spending available funds, however, is a major test for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority’s (BTA) governance capacity.

The region — with an annual block grant from the National Government guaranteed under the law plus a special development fund — has an approved budget this year of P79.86 billion.

Almost half of the total budget or 48% is allocated to education, health and social services. Economic services account for 26.6%, which cover infrastructure development and programs for key sectors such as agriculture, transport and communications, trade, and tourism.

General public services have a 23.5% share while 1.8% goes to public order and safety.

The regional government can also use its unspent 2020 and 2021 budgets until the end of 2022, based on a law passed by the Bangsamoro Parliament in December last year.

Datu Hilmie Khan C. Haron, chief budget and management specialist of the Ministry of Finance, Budget, and Management, underscored during a January forum on the budget monitoring system that the regional government has been able to institutionalize reforms and set up mechanisms for sound fiscal management.

“(The funds) are entrusted to us as guardians and financial managers of the public resources,” Mr. Haron told budget and planning officers and other representatives of the BARMM ministries.

“It is our sole responsibility to protect the integrity of the Bangsamoro Government, upholding the principles of moral governance in everything that we do in pursuit of genuine and meaningful autonomy,” he said.

Political analyst Ramon C. Casiple said while the Bangsamoro shifts towards greater autonomy, the Marcos administration must not think that the regional government should now be left to its own devices.

“Bangsamoro is a project in transition… this is a different level of governance, it’s not part of the normal system in the Philippines that we have regional governments,” said Mr. Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

“Recognizing this transition requires that the National Government should pay attention to the ideas coming from that particular area since this is a new beginning for them.”

As a startup region, its leadership, composed of the members of the transition authority, is contending with a multitude of issues, both old and new, that are all linked to keeping the peace and ensuring inclusive development in the poorest part of the Philippines.

The independent Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) that is keeping watch on the normalization process has underscored the need to synchronize the rollout of socioeconomic programs alongside the decommissioning of former armed combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“Decommissioning is perhaps the most challenging part of the normalization process,” the TPMT said in its 7th Public Report covering the period November 2020 to January 2022.

Under the decommissioning process, the MILF, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014, committed to turn over weapons in phases, to be complemented by development and social service programs for former rebel camps and communities.

“All these (socioeconomic support projects) have been rather slow in coming… this is something which really should be addressed,” TPMT Chair Heino Marius said at the report launch in March.

Director Wendell P. Orbeso of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity said programs for the normalization as well as political tracks of the peace process did gain momentum despite the additional challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis.

“We are currently in Phase 3 in the implementation of the normalization track wherein we are in the process of decommissioning an additional 35% or 14,000 MILF combatants which commenced on Nov. 8, 2021,” Mr. Orbeso said during the last meeting of the Duterte government’s Inter-Cabinet Cluster Mechanism on Normalization (ICCMN) in late June.

The transformation of former MILF camps, meanwhile, is getting multi-sectoral support, with projects involving the security forces, civil society, foreign governments, and international agencies.

One of these projects, the Access to Legal Identity and Social Services for Decommissioned Combatants, deals with something fundamental: Documenting and establishing individual identities of not just decommissioned combatants but also those who are still non-decommissioned and civilians who live in and around the camp communities.

“We are assisting the national ID program in registering these individuals… as part of the camp transformation, their reintegration into civilian life,” said Marco Bayadog, program manager of IDEALS, Inc.

The nonprofit organization is implementing the program, funded by the European Union, United Nations Development Programme, and the Australian government.

“So they’ll be ready, they have legal documents for them to access socioeconomic benefits (from the government),” he said.

In the course of their ground work, Mr. Bayadog said the most striking encounter he had was with an 80-year-old man whom he noticed was looking intently at his document after registration.

It turned out that the man could not read and he was curious where his name was indicated and what everything else on the paper meant.

“I explained that this is your name, the family name of your mother, father, where you were born, your home address, your rank among your siblings,” Mr. Bayadog said in an online interview.

“And he said to me: This is a wonderful document because now my children and my grandchildren have a reference for where I came from.”

Mr. Bayadog, who also worked on initiatives for Marawi City’s displaced residents, said he was moved by the realization that for the old man, receiving social benefits such as a senior citizen allowance was not as valued as establishing a tangible piece of history — and being able to connect his roots to his family and the generations to come.

Mr. Galvez, speaking at his last ICCMN meeting under the Duterte administration, said the “dividends of peace” are now being felt in the Bangsamoro.

He also rallied career officers and employees in the ICCMN member agencies “to provide the same level of support to the incoming administration” in order to sustain the gains in the BARMM.

Mr. Galvez, one of the key generals who led security forces in the Marawi battle against Islamic State-linked local terrorist groups, has been designated by President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. as holdover peace adviser until the end of the year. 

Another national-regional mechanism, the Intergovernmental Relations Body, which was set up to address concerns and speed up the transition process, also left a detailed report on its achievements as well as pending issues that need attention — including coordination in natural resource management, transfer of public assets, and the rights of indigenous communities within BARMM, among others. 

“With this report, we hope to guide the next administration in building on the significant gains we have made and in driving the BARMM’s transition process towards completion,” former Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said during a presentation ceremony in Malacañang in mid-June. 

Mr. Dominguez co-chaired the body with BARMM Education Minister Mohagher Iqbal, who was also the MILF’s chief negotiator during the peace talks.

Mr. Casiple said the Bangsamoro is “certainly an important and pressing matter” that the Marcos administration could not simply put on the back burner.

“This (the BARMM establishment) is already progress in itself,” he said, but “the Duterte administration has not finished the job.”

Sustaining the peace efforts, Mr. Galvez said, ultimately benefits the whole country in terms of reputation and economic gains.   

“The region has now become a show window for peace and development. It has certainly come a long way since the days when investors shied away,” he said in a statement in early June.

Brian Harding, Southeast Asia senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), said what happens to the BARMM peace process matters not just for the region and the Philippines, but globally.

Speaking at a USIP-organized conference on June 14 in Cotabato City, BARMM’s regional center, Mr. Harding said the world needs to see “peace-building success stories” as in the unfolding tale of the Bangsamoro.