Let Maranaos rebuild Marawi!” was a strident cry I heard at the sidelines of a recent forum revisiting the Mindanao peace process organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and Ateneo de Manila University. The call reflected a sentiment that the national government and Luzon-based parties are again seen, rightly or wrongly, to be charting the future of a key Mindanao city above the heads of the locals, without due regard for their own ideas and aspirations. The Jica-Ateneo forum was an effort to refocus on the need to push the Mindanao peace process to its completion, and not allow it to be drowned out in current discussions on federalism, and amid the urgent concern to rebuild war-torn Marawi City.
The complex dynamics of the “Mindanao problem” has posed one of the most difficult challenges to Philippine nation building and development for decades. The ultimate goal of peace and development in Mindanao has been an elusive one, and while defining the vision is easy, determining the right path to get there is extremely difficult. We had come a long way with the achievement of a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014, and pursuit of legislation to enshrine it into law via the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL)—until politics got in the way and sidetracked it.
In the past, it was quite common to hear it asserted that the root of the conflict in Mindanao is poverty and underdevelopment. If we could only bring development to Mindanao, the reasoning went, peace should fall into place. This in mind, development initiatives in Mindanao saw a dramatic boost in the 1990s, a tangible manifestation of which was how the Ramos administration tripled the share of government infrastructure spending for Mindanao. The strategy was to build a unified and integrated economy in Mindanao, moving it away from the past situation where its economic centers served merely as satellite economies to Metro Manila and Cebu, while relating less to one another. The infrastructure boost in the 1990s helped change that. At the same time, President Fidel V. Ramos pushed vigorously to make Mindanao our “gateway to Asean” via the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area. Economic development became the key thrust for addressing the “Mindanao problem.”
Meanwhile, the accompanying peace thrust hinged on a peace process that culminated in the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front led then by Nur Misuari. Some semblance of peace was achieved in Mindanao for some time. But it was not to last. While it had earlier been hoped that addressing development would usher in lasting peace, subsequent developments brought the focus back on lack of lasting peace as the primary impediment to Mindanao development. It was a chicken-and-egg question that kept defying satisfactory solutions.
Subsequent analyses with a noneconomic lens gave rise to the new realization that the real root of the Mindanao problem has been injustice in many forms. This injustice is seen in the exclusion of the Bangsamoro and indigenous peoples (IPs) from mainstream political, economic and social life. It is seen in native Mindanawons’ loss of access to land and other resources. It is seen in limited economic opportunities, and in extreme poverty resulting from inherent unfairness in the economic and political system. It is seen in the suppression of Moro and IP traditions, customs and traditions. It is seen in unresolved human rights abuses committed by forces aligned with the state or local politicians and officials. Injustice in Mindanao has been manifested in many other ways, and Muslims and IPs have not been its only victims. The CAB and BBL were seen to satisfactorily address such injustice, and many feel that sitting on them is injustice in itself.
Bangsamoro leaders in the Jica-Ateneo forum asserted that federalism will not substitute for the BBL, but merely complement it. Meanwhile, the lure of violent extremism has fast become the urgent and growing threat in Mindanao. The message from the forum was loud and clear: The government cannot afford to sit on the BBL much longer.