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Mindanao Series I

by Said Sadain, Jr.
August 1999

Three years since the signing of what had been termed by the Government of The Republic of the Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front, and the Organization of Islamic Conference as the Final Peace Agreement toward the resolution of the Moro armed conflict in Mindanao, the prime question in most minds of the Muslim leaders in Mindanao these days is this: where do we go from here?

What is to be done with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), otherwise known as the Organic Act RA 6734 ? Should it be extended to carry on with its mediocre performance for some more time? If it is going to be repealed or amended, what is to take its place, in what form and how is it going to be implemented?

The 1996 Peace Agreement calls for the repeal and/or amendment of the ARMM, after a transition period of two to three years, in favor of an expanded autonomous region that covers areas of Mindanao that would want to become part of the new autonomous region through a plebiscite.

This sounded good on paper, except for the fact that, should a plebiscite be held now or in the near future (which is to say within 6 months to a year), even some of the present areas of the ARMM may opt not to join such a setup. The telltale signs are too obvious to ignore.

Should the government persists on holding the plebiscite soon (the regular ARMM election scheduled for September 1999 has already been postponed to March 2000, in deference to pursuing this aspect of the Peace Agreement), where would this lead the region? Would it actually lead to the fulfillment of the grand visions of the honorable signatories to the 1996 Peace Agreement, in their own words, under the principle of peace with honor, to serve the paramount ends of national unity, solidarity and progress for all Filipinos while asserting the right of the Moro people to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their religious, social, economic and cultural development, and thus effect a just, lasting, honorable and comprehensive solution to the problem in Southern Philippines within the framework of the Philippine Constitution?

In short, would it contribute to the solution of the problem?

These are indeed grand words from the Final Peace Agreement, except that, after three years, they remain to be translated into concrete actions that still have to yield positive results. Three years hence, the ARMM, SPCPD, SZOPAD, the Consultative Assembly - and whatever else tongue-twisting label that you can throw at them - are nowhere near making life any better for its Moro constituency.

Expectedly, Governor Nur Misuari has taken the flak for most of this dismal showing. And for good reasons. In the first place, he took more than what he can chew, when, in one sweep, he allowed himself to be elected Governor of the ARMM, to be appointed Chairman of the SPCPD, and to remain as Chairman of the MNLF. And he also insisted on going on every foreign trip to assuredly boost international investment prospects and trade ties with the SZOPAD.

Even a comic Superman would have known better than that.

However, to be fair to Misuari and his administration, a three-year period is not really enough to show a significant turn-around of the fortunes of Muslim Mindanao, given the deeply-ingrained hostile reality on the ground, the limitations of budget, and most glaringly, the lack of a 20-20 vision and practical skills to carry this experiment through with some amount of success.

The mere task of developing the necessary leadership, professional, and managerial skills can take time (and the MNLF, apart from training brave and fierce warriors, has not been noted for encouraging this sort of development as a long-term goal and policy even among its ranks). Countering and eradicating a widespread hostility and cynicism that threaten every step of the peace process can take even a longer time and a greater effort.

Even assuming the money does pour in and is utilized properly, how long does it take to carry out massive electrification projects and the extensive construction of transportation and telecommunication infrastructure in places that are so depressed and so much left behind by the times? We are talking here of areas people are apt to describe as having been abandoned even by typhoons. Areas where the locals are not up to the mark of executing rapid technological and economic development. Areas which have a mindset such that if you were to send a platoon of outside skilled workers to facilitate such projects, the locals will most likely resent that deeply, out of misplaced pride and suspicions.

The fact that Misuari and his MNLF advisers and deputies agreed to the three-year transitory term of the peace agreement only shows the lack of perception by the leadership of the nature of the problems of Mindanao and the efforts it takes to solve them. Did they honestly think that in such short time, they could reverse the wrongs that have plagued the region for centuries? And did they honestly think that defining an enlarged SZOPAD (Special Zones of Peace and Development) as the focus of intensive peace and development efforts, would convince the areas in the SZOPAD outside of the ARMM, to join an enlarged ARMM later? This transitory solution, both in paper and in the way it was carried out (if at all), only served to reinforce the fears of the Moro people that while they continue to wallow deeper in their sad situation, the neighboring areas around them were ensured of more prosperity.

Why is this so?

A transition, any transition, by its nature, is fraught with traps and the real prospects of chaos, with some sectors resisting it, some sectors taking opportunities and jockeying for vantage heights, some sectors just plainly indifferent, and some even actively destroying it. Merely attempting to reconcile all these sectors and interests is a giant task in itself, never mind the actual task of legislating, budgeting and implementing projects. The transition period for the ARMM thus was meant to be bloody and difficult every step of the way.

And Misuari thought he could do it like Rambo with his fingers on the triggers of three high-powered gattling guns while his body is wrapped in straps of bullets with a rocket launcher on his back and a dozen or two grenade packs around his waist. In the span of a two-hour movie.

During these three years of course, productive work and effort have always been exerted (who says these people do not get down to real work?), but look where the economic development effort is taking root and yielding results: in the more peaceful areas of the SZOPAD outside of the ARMM. Nothing wrong in this, except for the fact that the regional and the national leadership, have uncomfortably missed and failed to present a united front in making the people of Mindanao realize that such prosperity was possible under the terms and conditions of the 1996 Peace Agreement.

In the present situation, would you then expect the relatively prosperous areas of the SZOPAD to join the tumultuous areas of the ARMM in a plebiscite for an expanded autonomous region? If you were in the ARMM, would you even want to stick with the ARMM afterward, if it meant more of this present ARMM?

And if the ARMM is to go down, what is to take its place? A more widespread cancer that is bound to consume the rest of the ailing body of Mindanao? Are we then back to square one?

Therein lies the trick of the matter: the conflict in Mindanao has never been and will never be won over the battlefield of guns and bullets, of steel and armor. This conflict, fought over centuries now, is all about winning the hearts and minds of the people of Mindanao, whether Muslims, Christians or lumads. And sadly, our leaders - the Misuaris, Lobregats, Eraps and Corys - are miserably failing in this challenge.

Next Issue:

Dealing With The Violence (It Is Not A Culture, Wiseguy, It Is An Alternative!)
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