Bangsamoro is a gamechanger PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 September 2014 11:59



The government’s herculean effort to put behind us a four-decade old, costly and painful civil strife and gain for us all the benefits of peace deserve our support. This can be a potential game changer in our economic landscape, not just in what is now called the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, but for the entire country. True, there are risks along the way. But it is well worth giving peace a chance.

The legitimacy of the Moro wars for independence was the basis for the peace negotiations from the time of Marcos to the present. The Bangsamoro claim they are a separate nation with a distinct identity, culture and independent state (sultanates) with a long history of resisting the colonizers. Nations like this have the “right to self-determination” (RSD), according to the United Nations. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) supported Nur Misuari and the Moro National Liberation Front in part because they supported the Bangsamoro fight for independence under the RSD and in part because they believed that the Muslims of Mindanao were under threat of genocide during martial law.

Peace in the South can bring up Mindanao’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP). Mindanao has abundant primary resources, perfect agro-climatic conditions, lower wage rates (with the ARMM cost half of average labor cost in Mindanao), still lower power cost, and vast opportunities for growth and diversification through its BIMP-EAGA connection. Investments have stayed away from Mindanao, even more so than the rest of the country, due to security concerns. Remember the Zamboanga siege? The Ampatuan massacre? Killers for tourism and investments, and not just in Muslim Mindanao.

As for opportunities in the ARMM, the region has the biggest areas of untapped natural resources, rich fishing grounds and fertile lands, the best beaches anywhere in the Philippines or anywhere else, and closest cultural and historical links with Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia which can allow the region to access new capital thru Islamic financing as well as a new export market in the still growing halal industry. Further, the barter trade between Sulu and Malaysia is an economic tie that is centuries old and can be revived, with BIMP-EAGA and the initiatives being mounted as part of ASEAN 2015, fully backed by the national governments and the Asian Development Bank.

The Bangsamoro will have even more powers than the ARMM government to help craft its own destiny. While the region has disadvantages largely due to the four decades of civil strife and neglect, it also has an important advantage — starting fresh. It can learn from the history of flawed policies that have hurt the flow of investments and creation of needed jobs in the rest of the country — rigid and costly labor policies, complex bureaucracies and red tape, a distorted fiscal incentive structure, a failed agrarian reform program and misguided environmental policies that choke the development of a responsible mining industry. As explained by Foundation for Economic Freedom President Toti Chikiamco in a workshop organised by the FEF/Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, it may actually provide a model for the rest of the country, be the tail to wag the dog, the way Hong Kong/Shenzen has shown the way for the rest of China.

Investors may, by adopting their business models and organisational and management styles to the traditional leadership (datus) structures of the area, find that these can be better places to operate than in other places in the country. This is the encouraging lesson of Unifrutti of former Secretary Senen Bacani and the late Datu Paglas which have won international awards.

It would be fair to ask, who are these guys (in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leadership) and why do we trust them to succeed? Why do we think that leadership won’t revert to the old traditional leaders/warlords after elections take place?

I posed this question to Amina Rasul, lead convenor of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, also our home Bangsamoro expert. This is what she said: “The MILF leadership is better prepared to take on the mantle of leadership of a civilian government (unlike the MNLF after the signing of the 1996 peace agreement). Under Chair Murad, the MILF has succeeded in establishing the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) and the Bangsamoro Leadership Institute (BMLI). The BDA and the BMLI, chaired by civilians, are led by boards consisting of the MILF Central Committee and professionals. The BDA is tasked to prepare the Bangsamoro Development Plan and has been assisted by development partners and government. The BMLI is putting together training programs for the Bangsamoro. Further, the MILF has been sending young Bangsamoro professionals to study, with the help of development partners.

While all development matters are still decided by the MILF Central Committee, it is clear that the MILF has been preparing for civilian government over the last few years. The failure of the MNLF to govern the ARMM, under Misuari, has been in large part due to their lack of preparation to govern under a democratic system. This is not the case with the MILF, which has been working with government and development partners to put in place programs such as the Sajahatra intended to provide services to its communities.

The MILF leadership also has the support of several political and traditional leaders, particularly in Central Mindanao. “What can business do to help enhance chances of success at this time — and moving forward after the Bangsamoro entity is set up?

The most urgent is for the business sector to support the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The MILF leadership under Murad has invested political capital in the peace agreement. Should the Basic Law be watered down or not passed, the pragmatists in the MILF Central Committee will lose out to the fundamentalist faction which is supported by younger (and more aggressive) leaders who already feel that the original demands of the MILF have been greatly undermined during the peace negotiations.

In the short term, before transition to the establishment of the Bangsamoro political entity, the business sector should assist in providing support for education. First, support adult literacy. Over half a million adults of ARMM are illiterate (more than a third of the voting population). When businesses are established in the Bangsamoro, labor will have to be imported from neighbouring non-Bangsamoro provinces if the existing labor force are unskilled and illiterate. This is a condition that will breed more conflicts, as the affected citizens will lose out on job opportunities to those who have not suffered from the armed conflicts. Second, support short management training for professionals who can run public and private sectors. Apprenticeships and internships can be provided by the private sector. Third, engage the BDA, the BMLI and the Bangsamoro private sectors (chambers of commerce and business councils) to identify opportunities for collaboration.

Let us begin.  — Romeo Bernardo was finance undersecretary during the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations, and board director of Institute of Development and Econometric Analysis Inc.. He writes a column in BusinessWorld