Lifting the Bangsamoro for good

Dante Dalabajan
'No doubt political autonomy is essential, but it is neither the only determinant factor nor should it be the sole end in the pursuit of lasting peace.'

The phase of the Bangsamoro political process has proceeded with great, stupendous speed after the historic meeting of MILF’s Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and Pres. BS Aquino in Tokyo in August 2011. The pressure weighed heavily on both sides of the political divide, and rightly so. There was an enormous pressure to succeed, a very tight deadline to do so, and a colossal political consequence for failure.

The recent signing of the last of the four Annexes of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) clears the way for the signing of the comprehensive peace deal and inspires a great deal of hope that peace is finally in sight, and that the genuine development that has eluded the people in this bountiful territory for so many decades can now take off.

Yet for all that has been accomplished by both parties so far, questions still linger as to how long this modus vivendi will hold this time. This guarded optimism common among many keen observers is not without basis. It lies in the careful understanding of the narratives of the root cause of the conflict in Southern Mindanao.

The most dominant of these narratives is that the conflict is an outward manifestation of the Moros call for freedom and self-determination. If this is all there is, then a political autonomy, as large as for the Moros to chart their own destinies, should ultimately put an end to the hostilities.

Photo courtesy of ARMM Public Information Office

Power play

A closer look at the history of the Bangsamoro, however, will reveal that while political power is still asymmetrical—both in relation to the national government and within the Bangsamoro societies themselves—it is not that the degree of autonomy, or the lack of it, has remained constant. From the Jones Law of 1916 where a full legislative power over Mindanao and Sulu was granted to the Moros, to the present day Organic Act (1989) which created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), it can be seen that the degree of political autonomy, however incremental it has been, seems to bear no relationship to the intensity of conflict within the Bangsamoro.

No doubt political autonomy is essential, but it is neither the only determinant factor nor should it be the sole end in the pursuit of lasting peace. This brings to fore an equally forceful and similarly persuasive narrative, which is that inequality, limits the choices of poor people. When there is severe lack of social options to better one’s lot, and when there is no above-ground and leveled field within which to express the discontentment towards inequality, there is little other choice left but to side with those who challenge the existing order from below ground, or so this narrative goes. Political exclusion is combustible but inequality is what makes it a dangerously potent explosive. In Mindanao this potent mix has continued for over 4 decades and has claimed the lives of an estimated 120,000 people and has displaced about 2 million more civilians.


A number of development indicators shine the spotlight on inequality that saddles the Bangsamoro. Sulu, Maguindanao, and Tawi-tawi – all in ARMM – are the 3 provinces in the Philippines at the bottom of UN’s 2013 Human Development Index, a measure of equality in terms of health, education and a decent standard of living. This puts these provinces in the league of the most troubled places on earth like Niger, Congo, and Zimbabwe. ARMM remains to be behind in labor participation rate at 58% compared to the national average of 64%. And it is not just the number of jobs that matters, how much people gain from employment is equally important. Agriculture, fishery, and forestry create jobs for almost 70 percent of ARMM residents, yet it is in these sectors where incomes are lowest.

And while men and women in the ARMM are both at a disadvantage relative to their counterparts in other regions, women are at a greater disadvantage compared to men. Arguably, the Philippines have had some advances in gender parity indices, but within the Bangsamoro, women have far lower levels of literacy and education compared to men. In agriculture, fisheries and forestry employment, men outnumber women 6 to 4. ARMM has the highest rate of unmet needs for pre- and post-natal care and family planning services for women, a fact which also has far reaching effects on the development of children. There are deeply-entrenched cultural norms that constrain women from contributing to productive pursuits, much less to participate in political decision-making.

The autonomy that will result from the ongoing Bangsamoro political process is a potentially powerful engine to propel growth in Mindanao with spillover effects to the national economy.

Agricultural potential

Evidently, addressing inequality means breathing life into the agriculture, fisheries and forestry where most of the poor are found. At present ARMM is a key producer of seaweeds and other fishery products as well as cassava, corn, banana, and coconut and there are very promising potentials for a remarkable growth within these sectors alone. The potential for the halal food industry is just as enormous.

Redistributive reforms both in agricultural and ancestral domain areas is the starting point which will provide the local communities within the Bangsamoro areas the means to contribute to economic growth. Massive investments in infrastructure, enhanced irrigation, farm and fishing technologies, and, credit and support services are required to unleash the productive potentials of the rural areas. Policies and programs that will help facilitate the horizontal integration of small producers, on one hand, while linking up the small producers vertically to the value chain should be passed.

Private sector investments must be guided with respect for basic human rights of men and women small producers, and agriculture laborers in their supply chain. Good corporate investments in small producers will spur local development, reduce poverty and hunger, and improve the lives and well being of the local communities.

Efforts must go towards making sure that not only women benefit from, but take up leadership roles in productive endeavors. Rafts of studies show that women invest on children’s education, family’s health, improvement of production capacity when we put income on their hands, far more than men do. These will allow women not just men to meet the new future that now beckons in the Bangsamoro land. –


Dante Dalabajan is currently the manager of Oxfam’s Building Resilient and Adaptive Communities and Institutions in Mindanao (BINDS) project. He was a former policy and research officer of the economic justice program of Oxfam. He has 17 years of experience in public policy research and advocacy and campaigns.