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Democracy’s U-turn in the Bangsamoro

In the face of a pandemic and a spike in violence in the second half of 2020, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-led Bangsamoro Transitional Authority is making a bid for no-el (no elections) and extended rule, claiming an inability to accomplish what they were tasked to do, in the time frame they agreed to, with the larger resources given to them, and with the threat that if their demands were not met, the region would likely slide back into war.

The MILF will perhaps argue that the latter is not an idle threat, but it actually is. That is so because the spikes in violence in the Bangsamoro in the past two years, especially during the period accompanying the 2019 plebiscite and midterm elections, have involved MILF commanders and combatants anyway.

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Data from Conflict Alert, a granular conflict database on the Bangsamoro region developed by International Alert Philippines, show that many MILF commanders and their followers and clan relatives were involved in violent feuds over land and other resources in the past three years from 2018 to the first half of 2020. The sad truth, too, is that those who now hold the reins of devolved political authority have been unable to control, much less punish, the deadly actions and behavior of their own members.

Beware the message that is transmitted when threats of future violence are made. People who warn of war shoot themselves in the foot because continued violence also bares the weaknesses of the normalization process, including the decommissioning of weapons. This process has been repeatedly delayed, and, worse, a further delay must be anticipated in case the extension is not granted. Why are we seeing a departure from the key provisions of the political settlement signed by the GRP and the MILF in 2014 and institutionalized in 2019?

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Here lies the rub. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) are the outcome of a democratic process, i.e., a plebiscite that institutionalized the Bangsamoro Organic Law. Yet the choice of leaders in the transition was undemocratic—the rulers were appointed by the President and nominated by the MILF.

This bifurcated basis of rule is a fissure in the political authority and legitimacy of the current Bangsamoro parliament and transition authority, a fracture that was supposed to be cured by the formal election in 2022. Yet this process is now being withdrawn by the same people who need this vital step if they are to succeed.

This sort of rule will continue to be fragile and prone to perpetual challenges and instability. It partly explains why the BTA has been unable to undertake changes despite the huge resources it acquired and the backing it received from the national government, including the many international financial and development agencies that enabled the BARMM to operate in a far more autonomous and flexible manner than what previous Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governments had to deal with.

It explains why priority actions that could have strengthened the BARMM’s popular mandate and political longevity were overlooked. For example, it could have enacted fundamental legislation on land and indigenous people’s rights.

It should have sensitized the BTA leadership to what the political economist Mushtaq Khan called the “embedded patronage relationships” that are disrupted by retiring an entire civil service and bureaucracy without clear guarantees of a better structure in place.

It could have focused the energies of the newly installed regional authority into matters that directly affect people’s lives, such as the pandemic, the economic crisis, the continuing spread of violent extremism, and the risks of being caught in the middle of firefights between warring rebel commanders.

It is time to seek and secure a popular mandate. Unless this is done, the BARMM and the BTA will continue to march to the drumbeat of the national government and the international community—rather than to its own people. The risk in prolonging a democratic transition is the very real threat of autocratic rule from leaders who owe their authority and power to the center, rather than those from the margins.

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Francisco J. Lara Jr., Ph.D. is professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines and senior peace and conflict adviser to International Alert Philippines.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro, BARRM, Commentary, democracy, Francisco J. Lara Jr., MILF
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