At Large

Imagining Mindanao

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It was a lot to ask of the Filipino people: to flex our imaginative muscles and “imagine” a new order, a new way of life in Mindanao.

Addressing the audience at the signing of the framework agreement that will pave the way toward the signing of a final peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the President painted a scenario for the future:

“A Mindanao finally free from strife, where people achieve their fullest potential. A child in Lamitan will be offered the same education as a child in Quezon City; the sick of Patikul will gain access to the same healthcare as those in Pasig; tourists visiting Boracay will also have Sulu in their itineraries; a businessman will earn a profit whether he sets up shop in Marikina or Marawi. People will be empowered; they will gain knowledge and marketable skills that will thrust the economy forward. From constant displacement, there will be now a stable employment. Children who have had to witness immeasurable suffering will now get to witness a harvest; sons and daughters who have had to sweep bullet casings from their yards will now get to pick fruit; families who once cowered in fear of gunshots will now emerge from their homes to a bright new dawn of equity, justice and peace.”

It is indeed, a lot to ask. For all Filipinos to set aside their fears and suspicions, and embrace instead optimism and trust. For the victims of war to set aside grievances and begin to forgive. For combatants to lay down their arms and join in the task of rebuilding and restoring. And for everyone to shed for the moment the posture of skepticism and doubt and be willing to believe and to dream.

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Both the MILF leadership and government representatives warned against burdening the coming process of preparing for a workable Bangsamoro with unrealistic expectations and impossible demands. Nur Misuari, who felt that he and the Moro National Liberation Front had been shunted aside, even warned that the framework agreement lays the basis for a new conflict in Mindanao.

So it’s important at this point to acknowledge the huge historic debts and personal grievances that still haunt the path to peace in Mindanao. Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles even waxed emotional when she “offered” the day to the memory of “those who have died without seeing the sunlight of peace—those felled by bullets, and those cut down by hunger because of the ravages of war.”

But in looking back and counting the costs, it is important as well to continue to move forward, to see where the common interests of all the people in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines lie, and to decide what policies we need to adopt and what steps we are to pursue to bring the promise of Mindanao to fruition.

As our brother and sister Muslims would say: Insha’Allah, God willing, we will find the way.

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Critics called the committee report presented by Sen. Ralph Recto the “Recto Morris bill,” in veiled reference to the alleged similarities (too many and too similar to ignore, they say) of his proposed measure to the draft submitted by Philip Morris, the biggest tobacco company in the country.

Apparently stung by the criticisms and the public protests, Recto resigned his post as chair of the Senate committee on ways and means, which heard the bills relating to the proposed “sin tax” to be imposed on alcohol and tobacco products. He had become, said Recto, “the national punching bag of the week,” taking a leaf from the game book of Sen. Tito Sotto who, in defending himself from critics of his stance against the Reproductive Health bill, cried that he had been the victim of “cyberbullies.”

But even punching bags have recourse to counter-punches. In his privilege speech, Recto accused groups funded by a foundation headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of orchestrating the campaign against him and the report released by his committee.

The “Recto Morris bill” drastically cuts down the revenue targets set by the House version of the “sin tax” bill, which itself had already halved the administration’s original fiscal goal. By linking the groups leading the public relations campaign against the Senate version of the bill to the Bloomberg Initiative, Recto apparently wished to parry accusations that he had been influenced by tobacco companies to favor their interests. The NGOs do not approach the table with clean hands, he seems to say.

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“An act of despair,” says Evita Ricafort of the public health policy NGO HealthJustice, of Recto’s “singling out a source of funding and casting malice over good work.”

“We have nothing to hide. On the other hand, can they tell us what their motives are for being against tobacco control?” asks engineer Emer Rojas of New Vois Association of the Philippines, a group of cancer survivors all attributing their disease to smoking. “Are they against funding for tobacco control? Or are they against how the impact of our work could be inversely proportional to their personal interests?”

Exaggerating his point, Recto asserted that if the “sin tax” is really aimed at reducing tobacco consumption, then why not ban smoking altogether? “This part Recto got right,” points out outspoken cleric Fr. Robert Reyes. “Banning cigarettes would be the best thing our government can do.” But if even just adding new taxes to tobacco products puts our senators on the defensive, observes Reyes, how much more will they rush to the tobacco companies’ defense if the government plans to shut down the industry entirely?

“Huwag tayong maglokohan (Let’s stop fooling each other),” the “running priest” says. “You’re either for the Filipino people or private profit.”

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