Abu Jahid, chairman emeritus, CBCS

(Editors’s Note: The writer is the current Chairman of CBCS, Mr. Guiamel Alim who is also being acclaimed by many colleagues as ‘father of CSOs’.)

The BARMM, after 1 year of existence and before it could effectively take off to pursue its development programs, legislative prerogatives and the pursuit of its flagship goal of moral governance, is now facing a great challenge brought about by the emergence of COVID-19 and the on-going violent hostilities in many areas within its political territory.

On one hand, the COVID-19 deprives the BARMM to pursue its development initiatives due to the restrictions in people’s movement. Development programs have to be deferred in order to give way to relief assistance for quarantined communities and provide infrastructure projects to fight the virus. People are deprived of their economic activities leaving them at the mercy of government relief assistance which are generally inadequate to support their daily needs.

Tackling important legislative agenda such as the different codes that will govern the administrative functions of the BARMM government are deferred too. Other important acts by the BTA, such as helping diffuse hostilities and investigation of violent cases are not undertaken. Governance in short was focused on helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 and providing subsistence support to the hard hit and poor communities and very little is being done on development and governance functions.

On the other hand, the on-going hostilities, military operations against “terrorist groups” such as the ASG in Sulu, BIFF in Maguindanao and the internal wars among armed Moro groups and land-based armed conflict among different tribal armed groups are re-enforcing the sufferings of thousands of communities who are displaced and at the same time also feel insecure in their health due to the virus. Making things worse is that they are deprived of earning their living to support the daily needs of their families. Development efforts in these violence-torn communities are put to halt leaving the communities to survive under government’s relief assistance. The money that is supposed to stimulate development in the BARMM is used in providing subsistence support to the displaced and quarantined communities.

Health experts predict that the virus can stay for a while and that vaccines may come in a year or two. This suggests that substantial efforts and resources will still be spent for anti-virus activities.
It also suggests that restrictions in people’s movement will still be part of the new normal and that economic activities and development efforts will not be in full swing as it used to be.

Among the flagship programs of the BARMM that will be adversely affected are education, health, and economic development. In education, on-line learning does not guarantee quality education. Number of school participants may decrease due to fear of COVID. Students from far-flung areas may not be able to cope up with the technical requirement of on-line learning, leaving them technically and academically behind their well-off classmates.

On the economy, poor communities will find hard time to make up for their lost livelihood. Employment, capitalization for small medium industries and agriculture will have to start all over again. Communities will always feel insecure in their health due to unseen COVID. Social gatherings will still be very minimal and convergence in religious houses will also be limited.

On the peace and security concerns, the recurring armed conflicts among the RIDO addicts and the on-going military operations by the government forces and military actions from the alleged terrorist groups will continue to be a fatal blow in the development of communities. In its strict sense and considering the number of geographical communities and people affected, the on-going hostilities in the BARMM is also a pandemic. The violence in the Pagalungan-Pikit complex, Talitay, Upi, in Maguindanao, Palimbang in Sultan Kudarat and Sulu and Basilan in the island provinces are affecting thousands of families and war-weary communities. These violent hostilities will be the anti-thesis to peace and development in the BARMM.

What is the implication of this scenario in the BARMM?

As part of the BOL, the BARMM is run by a transitory government whose main function among others, is to ensure that all the necessary requisites are in place, including the accomplishment of all the codes that will govern the incoming regular government. Also included in the signed agreement is the signing of an exit agreement that will indicate that all interim agreements are faithfully executed.

A year has passed and the BTA is still working on the different codes. The implementing panel which is tasked to oversee the implementation of all the agreements has yet to start put in concrete implementable actions whatever roadmap they have on the normalization part of the agreement. The transitional justice component of the peace formula has yet to take off. Delay in the implementation of the agreement may not only hinder the much expected development and peace but also the signing of the exit agreement.

Within the remaining 2 years (2020-2022), the following has to be completed or substantially accomplished:
• Finalization of all the 8 codes
• Complete re-organization of the BARMM
• Finalization of the Bangsamoro Development Plan
• Development of the MILF camps and other conflict areas;
• Gradual withdrawal of the AFP from the BARMM;
• Dismantling of private Armed Groups (PAG)
• Decommissioning of the BIAF and their arms;
• Policing
• Implementation of the recommendations of the TJRC;
• Other laws such as the inter-governmental relations with LGUs
• Rehabilitation of Marawi City and other devastated areas;
• Providing socio-economic infrastructure to impoverished communities in the BARMM;
• Building strong social cohesion among different cultural groups.

These are just few development agenda that the BARMM is expected to accomplish in the transition period.
With the challenges of COVID-19 and the on-going hostilities in the BARMM, it may be difficult to achieve the desired output within the next 2 years. If elections in the BARMM pushes through in 2022, it means that the BARMM has less than 2 years to go. Our tradition in the Philippines shows that elections start 1 year before the casting of votes.

The bigger challenge ahead is economic recovery. The economic crisis will also be pandemic. While the first world countries have readily available coping mechanism and easy recovery schemes, third world countries like the Philippines has a long way to make up. Our loan from the WB is in the billion due to the COVID. More loans are needed. A big chunk of our national budget will be spent to pay for both our local and foreign debts. Development and recovery funds will dwindle leaving a crisis situation if unabated. If much of our national budget is spent for paying our debts, the chance is that even the block grant for the BARMM can be adversely affected that will also affect development in the BARMM. Should that be the case, the credibility of the BARMM in governance and development will also be affected if performance audit is done. This can be used by the opposition to discredit the BARMM during the elections.

What can be done?

There is no quick fix to this complex situation. There can be more immediate and long term steps to be taken to move forward. It can be long and winding. On governance, we see the need for the government of the BARMM to pursue more aggressively its development agenda after the lockdown has been relaxed that will allow people’s movement even as it continues to help address the issue of the COVID pandemic.

The BARMM authorities shall assert its influence to stop the violent hostilities especially those involving their forces. We see the need for the BTA to swiftly convene and dip their fingers in helping find means to resolve violence in the BARMM through policy and legislation. The BTA must pursue its delayed task of accomplishing all the important codes for the BARMM. These acts will help redeem the credibility of the BARMM leadership.

On Human Rights, Good Governance and Preventing Violent Extremism

The issue of human rights is always a primary concern, especially among the CSOs. This includes civilian protection, especially the most socially vulnerable: elderly, persons with special needs, widows, women, children and indigenous peoples in very far flung areas – during times of military skirmishes, natural calamities and now, the COVID 19 health pandemic.

The latest case of HR violations and utter disregard to International Humanitarian Law is the bombing of a community in Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao that killed 2 children-sibling and wounding of 14 others. Burning of houses and looting of properties in the Pikit-Pagalungan fight among Moro armed groups and the displacement of thousands of civilians in Talitay and South Upi violence are examples of violations of the IHL.

At hand is a debate on the proposed anti-terrorism bill that may trample HR in the name of fighting terrorism. We feel that there is a better way of preventing violent extremism than what is in the proposed bill. While it may be a long process but non-violent, genuine development, people’s participation and good governance is the most effective approach to preventing violent extremism.

The government can engage the services and commitment of the third pillar of the society- the CSOs. Constructive engagement and collaboration is the best approach to engaging all stakeholders in building the BARMM including the CSOs.

The BARMM must act swiftly taking the opportunity of a relaxed COVID protocols. The 2-year period is no time at all. The BTA must address itself in finishing all the important codes and other legislative functions. The leadership of the BARMM, without losing sight of its obligation to protect its citizens from the virus, must use its dual authority and influence as MILF and government leaders to end the violence in its political territories. The BARMM leadership must involve all important stakeholders in its task to bring peace and promote development in the region. Now, more than ever, the people’s of the BARMM must also act as one.