Three voices from the Philippines’ new Muslim homeland

The creation of a new Muslim autonomous region in the conflict-torn southern Philippines has been hailed as a political breakthrough that could finally lead to peace in the Catholic-majority nation. Southeast Asia Globe speaks to three young people from the region to understand their stories and to learn what the new autonomous region will mean for their futures

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March 12, 2019
Three voices from the Philippines’ new Muslim homeland
Muslim women look for their names at a voting precinct in Maguindanao, on the southern island of Mindanao on January 21, 2019, the plebiscite to ratify the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). - A decades-long push to halt the violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives in the southern Philippines culminates with a vote on giving the nation's Muslim minority greater control over the region. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP)

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) might be a bit of a mouthful to say, but for many in the southern Philippines, it bears the sweet taste of success.

The new region is the culmination of talks that began in 2014 between the largest rebel group in the region, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the national government led by President Rodrigo Duterte. The divisive Duterte may be known internationally for his controversial and deadly war on drugs, but the creation of the BARMM, also known as the Bangsamoro, could go some way to leaving him with a legacy of a peacemaker.

The BARMM will see the creation a Muslim autonomous area in a majority-Catholic country. In itself, that is nothing new. In 2006, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created with similar hopes and promises to that of the BARMM. However, it has been frequently referred to as a “failed experiment” due to widespread corruption among officials and reliance on the central Philippine government to manage its spending. Hence, the BARMM. The new region will cover a wider area, have greater fiscal autonomy, and have a government system that is parliamentary-democratic with 80 elected members.

On top of this, it will see the disarmament of the rebel group the MILF, which will now play a leading role in the governance of the region. A temporary government has been named by Duterte, with Murad Ebrahim – the leader of the MILF – at its head. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority, as it is known, will govern for three years before elections are held to decide on the new government of the BARMM.

Supporters of the new region believe that it will see an end to conflict between Muslim separatist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, granting the Bangsamoro people – or Moro – the autonomy they have long fought for.

But the MILF is not the only rebel group in the region. The oldest group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), has also thrown its support behind the BARMM. But other, newer groups that have publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS, still endure. They lurk in the shadows of this development, threatening to undo this latest effort at a peaceful resolution.

Through a series of conversations with three young people who grew up in southern Philippines, Southeast Asia Globe dives into their hopes, fears and expectations for the BARMM. Is it the long-awaited peaceful resolution that some have claimed, or is it going to be yet another failure to set right the injustices and indignities suffered by the Moro over so many years?

Read our breakdown of the various different groups involved in the southern Philippines conflict here.

Jorjani Sinsuat, 22, graduating student of the mass communication programme at Ateneo de Davao University.

I come from Maguindanao, so all my life I’ve seen the conflict in the area. I actually went to a [weekend school that provides Islamic studies] that was basically run by the MILF for eight years. The 
MILF was involved mainly in the academic strand of it; they made sure that everyone got the support needed to organise academic or research initiatives, sports competitions for the youth and the basics of our religious needs. It shaped me to support the Bangsamoro peace process because I saw the need to support these marginalised communities and assure that they have a safe space to learn and practice their beliefs.

Personally, I think [the BARMM is] going to be more colourful in terms of its political dynamics [than the ARMM] because you have 80 people leading an entire parliament. So, in terms of representation, I think the BARMM… can do a better job [than the ARMM].

At the moment I am a graduating student in Ateneo de Davao University. Being part of the academia, most of our job involves translating the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) into a language [that] students and the youth can understand, and [running] road shows in different universities so that [the students] can get on board [with the BOL], as well to make sure that they are the watchdogs of the transition [of the new government].

The youth, they are more inclined to make sure the Bangsamoro leads [to] a more progressive community for Mindanao. So they are talking about the future. They don’t talk much about their grievances or their wounds.

The newly created BARMM is coloured in red

I think I cannot speak for my parents, but in general they support the [BARMM] cause, but… my mum and dad are skeptical [of] how the MILF is going to run the government since most of their lives [the members of MILF] were in the combat fields. [My parents] just hope that [the members of the MILF involved in the new government] get to learn fast how to govern and how the system will work, because this is new to the MILF – this a new frontier for them.

Where I live now it’s just a street away from the Roxas Night Market bombing. It was an attack by the ISIS-inspired groups here in Mindanao [in 2016], so [extremism] does bother most of us. I remember seeing blood on the ground, so many people crying and I felt that we need to do more in order to stop violent extremism spoiling the peace process. Unlike the old Moro fronts [such as the MNLF and the MILF], the Daesh-inspired [ISIS-inspired] groups here are… you cannot enter a dialogue with them. When you think about the peace process, I think that’s not possible with these groups. So, I’m really trusting the system and I’m really trusting the influence that the MILF and the MNLF have in the whole land. If we maintain that and we run a good Bangsamoro government, I think we can pacify these young groups, because they are really a part of the edge when it comes to the dialogues.

It’s a very radical change in the general context of the Philippines. If [the people] don’t mess around with the political system for now, if they let the president work his way through this transition and then let the peace process survive, I think it’s going to work for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro. What we fear is that… If [the people] try to dismantle the national government or shake up the administration now, [then] I think we are going to be the ones who are [heavily] affected. So there is that immediate support that we give to the president at the moment, because we have to make it through. Then they can do whatever they want after, we just have to survive this phase now.

Duterte has to make it through for now… he has to make it through so things can go smoothly.

Yasmira Moner, 32, instructor, Political Science Department, College of Arts and Social Science, MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology, Iligan City Philippines.

I was born in one of the war-torn areas of Mindanao in 1986, in
Delabayan, [an] interior barangay of Kauswagan. I’m a post-martial law baby. In the province where I grew up there were Muslims, Christians, even Buddhists – so very much a multi-faith community. During that time I didn’t feel much discrimination.

In 2000, then-President [Joseph] Estrada declared an all-out war against the MILF. At this time, the municipal hall where the seat of the local government of Kauswagan was located was besieged by [the MILF]. There were ongoing air strikes by [the Armed Forces of the Philippines], [so] people were running, hiding… running for their lives. [There was] all this commotion. I think that left me with this impression that wars really destroy a whole lot of sensibilities and human dignity. I literally ran without my slippers on – I ran barefoot.

I studied [political science] in Mindanao State University, [and there I got involved in] youth engagement with non-Muslim communities. I realised that the world is not just about me and my feelings, but I have to serve as the bridge. Violence and discrimination is not unique to an individual, but it is actually learned, and it is the product of our conflict. So that’s where I really started to engage myself, doing advocacy, community-driven leadership workshops.

The [phrase for me] is “guarded optimism.”

Let me frame it this way: I’m optimistic that there is going to be a change in the government structure, considering [that we will go from] the highly centralised ARMM where there is no real political economy, versus this new political structure where there is a parliament where we can work things out. Second, is that the government has been successful in mainstreaming the largest Muslim armed groups in the country and that will help the government in combating the rise of faith-based extremism in the region.

On the part of the… MILF commanders who are not technocrats who don’t have experience in governance: that’s the danger. But then there’s no perfect process. For me, in a transition, you also have to include the old government so that there will be a way of transitioning, familiarity, and to serve as a feedback about what needs to be changed.

[My ideal outcome for the BARMM] is a multicultural representation of the diverse peoples of ARMM, where the parliament will institutionalise “Islamic Constitutionalism” (religious freedom and legal reforms that take the plurality of peoples within the Moro-dominated region). Also, a Bangsamoro government comprising of a coalition of matured political parties that will weaken the hold of warlords, and make traditional politicians irrelevant against the broader interests of the Bangsamoro, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Reemar Alonsagay, 26, peace worker, activist and Christian raised in the Bangsamoro area. “I have a [Che Guevara] tattoo on my right shoulder. He is not only an ideologue, he also put his ideology into practice”.

I live in Bangsamoro territory, in Cotabato. I was raised there so I [had] a lot of Moro neighbours and friends.

How I perceive the Moro people… There’s a little bit of discrimination because we were told by our parents [when growing up], ‘do not make friends with Muslims because they are bad, they are monsters’. Because I [was] really interested [in] these people… I tried to ask them what are they fighting [for], what is their religion, what is their culture. So it makes me understand.

I’ve been a peace worker and activist for seven years, I’ve been… volunteering with people’s organisations [and] non-government organisations in Mindanao, like the Mindanao People’s Peace Movement. In [our] engagement in the Bangsamoro communities… we try to fill the gap of information, try to fill the gap of education and awareness.

I’m sympathetic [to the Moro people] in the sense that I believe [in] what they are fighting for – the autonomy and independence – because I see they have their own practices and their own identity.

I am critical [of the BARMM] in the sense that it’s caused by transactional politics. The national government provides this newly installed political unit just to pacify [the Moro people’s] frustrations and their grievances. But the real battle is with the socio-economic status of these people because we can’t really see a development in the Bangsamoro area. It’s still extremely poor and less structured and less developed.

I think the first step… of the government [should be] to mobilise information [and] to mobilise education with the people on the ground. As I mentioned, there is a disparity of information – people really don’t know what they are fighting for. If you go to the far-flung areas of Mindanao, they really don’t know what [the Bangsamoro is]. They know they are Muslim, but they don’t know what is the right to self-determination, what is the content of the BOL. So I think the first step that the government needs to do is to mobilise information on the ground. After that, if people are conscious about this societal issue, the people will become mature and they can decide whether to have autonomy or whether they want to be a part of the Philippines.

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