Philippine autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao may serve as peace resolution model

 The successful creation of an autonomous region in southern Philippines that ended a nearly 50-year old rebellion may serve as a role model for conflict resolution around the world, experts said.

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is a product of the 17 years of on- and off- negotiations between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. As the country's biggest rebel group, the MILF had long fought for an Islamic state separate from the Philippines, a Christian-majority country.

The BARMM was formally established in January 2019 following the ratification of Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). The law was ratified through a plebiscite, where majority of the voters agreed to be part of the newly created region. A recent resolution urges the Philippine Congress to extend the Bangsamoro transition period from 2022 to 2025.

BARMM residents have collected about one million signatures and submitted a petition to President Rodrigo Duterte to certify the proposed extension as a key legislative measure.

"The BARMM could (serve as a) role model for other countries which (want to resolve the problem on) separatism without dividing the country (and) sacrificing the integrity of the state," said Eddie Alih, member of parliament of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). The BTA is led by former members of the MILF and is currently serving as the Bangsamoro region's interim government until the first set of officials is elected on 2022.

Bangsamoro means "nation of the Moros" and is a portmanteau of the Malay word "bangsa" and the Spanish word "Moro" that refer to the various Filipino Muslim ethnic groups, most of whom live in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

BARMM encompasses the provinces of Basilan, Lanao Del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Some of the salient aspects of BARMM include the implementation of Shariah law among Muslims, fiscal autonomy from the national government, and the development of Islamic banking and finance systems.

Alih, who once served as a MILF consultant, said the creation of an autonomous region attests to the national government's recognition of the Bangsamoro people's identity and their right to self-determination.

"What do the Bangsamoro people want that the (national) government can give to them? The Bangsamoro people have been fighting for their identity," Alih said.

Alih said that one of the biggest achievements of the region so far is its "peace dividend". He said basic government services can now be delivered in the remote areas of Mindanao, unhampered by threat of violence, adding that a more peaceful Mindanao can also boost economic development, reduce poverty levels and promote education reforms.

Julkipli Wadi, professor and former dean of Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, complimented the BTA, noting that it is "strongly driven" to do its tasks as a transition government and that the MILF leadership "has shown consistency with its commitment to join government bureaucracy".

He also said that the BTA has also passed several priority bills that can ease the transition period.

Mary Ann Arnado, secretary general of the Mindanao People's Caucus (MPC), said the BARMM is "a good model for political settlement of an armed conflict".

The MPC, a network of indigenous peoples, Bangsamoro and Christian communities and leaders that advocate for peace in southern Philippines, has published in October 2020 a comprehensive review of the major gains and challenges of BARMM.

These include the establishment of a fully-operational and functioning interim government, enactment of key legislation, delivery of accessible and inclusive health services and the BTA's quick response to the pandemic through extension of financial support to frontliners, enhanced testing capacity and construction of isolation centers.

Arnado said these achievements prove that the BTA is on track to deliver the commitments that were part of their peace agreement with the national government. Despite these gains, Arnado said that the three-year transition period may not be enough for the BTA.

For one, the BTA's operations were hampered by delays in the transfer 63.6 billion peso ($1.31 billion) in funding from the national government to the newly-created region. This was compounded by the lockdown measures that were imposed in 2020 to curb COVID-19 infections.

Arnado said the petition to extend the transition period does not include the extension of the term of the current BTA officials.

Wadi said the BTA also has to overcome other challenges such as the presence of some extremist groups that threaten its peace-building efforts.

"BARMM as a region has remained fraught with tensions as shown with the war in Marawi city in 2017 and the persistent problems of its rehabilitation," he said.

Wadi was referring to the gunfight between the Philippine military and the Islamic State-linked Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Salafi in Marawi, the capital city of Lanao del Sur. The five-month armed conflict displaced thousands of civilians and destroyed the city.

"The BARMM obviously does not exist in a vacuum. The real barometer of BARMM is how much impact it has elicited not only as new autonomous institution but on the overall welfare, peace and development condition in the region," he said.



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