The opportunity that is Mindanao

Edmund Tayao
If we are able to address the long-running problem of underdevelopment and violence in Mindanao, there is no reason why we cannot have peace, security and development in the rest of the country

Mindanao has always provided an opportunity for the country, but interestingly has remained an opportunity and has yet to actually become a key driver of growth and development in the country. Mindanao is the second largest main island in our archipelagic country and arguably the richest in natural resources. If you look at the map, you could easily see that it could serve as the gateway to the region. To the south and southeast is Manado in Indonesia and Sabah, currently with Malaysia but is legitimately claimed by the Philippines; further southeast is of course Brunei and further south is Australia. This strategic location should be foremost in our consideration why Mindanao has to develop along with Luzon and of course Visayas. The almost concluded Peace Agreement between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is an opportunity to have this objective become a reality.

It is imperative that we see a successful peace agreement as an opportunity and to at the least objectively look at its provisions and understand adequately the gains of pushing it and continued losses if we close our mind to it. Unfortunately, just like the previous attempts at really making peace and ultimately achieving development in Mindanao, a number have already started to shoot it down. Assuming that the agreement is really unacceptable, what are the points that make it unacceptable? What are the alternatives or, what could be done to make it acceptable? In other words, for those who oppose it, what alternative could they offer so that violence in the region finally ends and the longed for development actually takes place? 

The global and regional outlook could be in our favor

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has now embarked at integration and the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the year 2020; this means free movement of goods and services. We are now in the year 2014 and therefore has 6 years remaining to prepare for the opportunities and threats that regional integration brings. Of course, opportunities outweigh threats if we go by the concept of integration, which means open market and therefore bigger market. Open market however, also means competition, and this is where losses may outweigh opportunities in our case. As has been raised in previous writings, our main problem in this country is politics, as it is the one that prevents setting up the right infrastructure and mechanism to promote production and distribution in the country.

Let’s take agriculture as an example, a sector and or industry that requires scale. We are a country that is rich in natural resources and rich productive land, and even talented and hardworking people. The right environment for all these good ingredients to work however can only be provided by the government. Rightly, agriculture was decentralized in 1991 under the Local Government Code. But what this merely meant was the transfer of responsibilities at the local level; there was no transition nor was there adequate technical support provided to ensure that the local government can absorb the responsibilities the agriculture industry entails. 

The local government, being the one closest to the ground is the logical political and administrative entity that should be responsible for agriculture. Agriculture requires close supervision which should take into consideration not only the material and technical production requirements but most crucial is the local condition, local practices and circumstances of the farmers and related groups and organizations. The national government should always be ready to provide technical support, even material and capital support, and set the standard, but the local government is the logical entity that should be in charge of implementation.

On the other hand, what clearly prevents all these from happening is again the political conditions in the country. Our local governments simply do not have the adequate scale, the right size that could provide a dynamic political and economic environment. On average, our municipalities, even some cities, are only about a hundred square kilometers, which is roughly about the size of a village in other countries. We have 81 provinces compared only to 34 of Indonesia which is bigger than the Philippines. With the exception of Jakarta, a special district like our National Capital Region, the smallest province is Yogyakarta which is 3,133 square kilometers. Compare that with our Provinces, many with only less than 2,000 square kilometers, and a number are island provinces with an average of only 300 square kilometers.

And it keeps on counting. Cities used to be only about 80, has now ballooned to 144; and the reason why this is the case is not development, not the availbility of better public services that logically suggests urbanization, and thus qualification to be declared a city, but only because of greater share in the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). The more we create local governments, the smaller becomes the jurisdiction of local authorities, the more will have to share from the same share in the IRA and therefore lesser money to spend for public services and ultimately, the more difficult it is for public administration. Issues like traffic and waste management transcend political boundaries and as it entails more transaction costs as individual local governments have to work together. Smaller political authorities mean less and less revenue, and less and less opportunity.

Amalgamation not fragmentation

The new Bangsamoro regional government is an opportunity for amalgamation, an opportunity to have a working model of a state that could allow us to imagine a federal Philippines where regions preserve and make the most out of their unique and rich identity. There is a good reason to believe this is a fresh and good start if we look at the interesting political structure they have set for themselves, that is the Ministerial Form, a parliamentary regional government. A parliamentary system is collegial, relying significantly on a working political party system. I can again imagine naysayers saying “precisely we don’t have ‘real’ political parties” and thus we can’t have a parliamentary system that will work. 

The good news is, regional political groups like the MILF and their erstwhile partner, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have both embarked on political party building, anticipating the requirements of a new regional political dynamic. The point is, a parliamentary system provides an entirely new political environment that allows the development of programmatic political entities like the political party. Unlike the presidential system where the focus is on the individual political chief executive, promoting, entrenching personality driven politics, the new system shifts the focus on the political institution that is the political party. This point, based fundamentally on the principle of ‘operant conditioning’ requires a different piece consistent with the system approach mentioned in a piece also published here before.

Our concern here mainly is why the new regional entity can jumpstart and sustain regional and local development. The answer is two interdependent factors. One is that it is a regional government and one which is set to adopt a different system that potentially can arrest the degeneration that results from traditional politics caused mainly by personalistic politics. Not to sound biased but I can risk saying that the MILF appear to be more organizational than personal compared to the MNLF. It should not be taken to mean that the former is therefore superior than the latter. It should however mean that it merits a closer inspection and provides a model for political party building not only in the region but even in the country. 

We have so many political parties, but hardly can we choose one that actually operates in the real sense of it. Saying that also means there’s much that MILF should be able to prove and work hard to convince that theirs is different and this effort would be more successful than the previous. More importantly, the MILF should be able to prove that this new entity is more inclusive and therefore addresses the main issue of secessionism in the country; and that is underrepresentation and being taken for granted if not used by the government.

Two, is precisely the Bangsamoro as an opportunity for amalgamation, at the least a good reason and opportunity for the provinces and other local governments to work closely, possibly work as one under the new regional entity. This point is interdependent on the previous because local governments have a reason to expect more from the regional government, more representation and therefore treated as a real stakeholder in the region and not just a tool of a person or a clan. The existing political organizations may still be consistent with the traditional model that is prevalent, but the new system as has been argued provides a new environment as it is an entirely different political game with different set of rules and dynamics.

Essentially, the new Bangsamoro political entity can potentially address the fragmented feature of our politics, or local governments in Mindanao especially. We may not be able to merge existing fragmented political entities in our provinces and municipalities and cities, but a working inclusive regional entity can do the trick of a more unified governance. Going back to the start of our discussion, Mindanao boasts of rich natural resources, not to mention, rich cultural history, sitting in a strategic location. 

If the still considerably agricultural land that it is, is made more productive than it is today, with its rich cultural heritage plus its picturesque environment and natural resources, then we are all set for ASEAN integration and even global competition. The bottomline in all these is, if we are able to address the long-running problem of underdevelopment and violence in Mindanao, there is no reason why we cannot have peace, security and development in the rest of the country.

After the formal signing, there’s still a long way to go before we can see a Bangsamoro political entity. The Bangsamoro Transititon Commission (BTC) should work fast to allow enough time for a transition which doubles as a way to promote the new entity to the rest of Mindanao and convince the others to consider being part of the regional government. Would it not be good to have a bigger political entity close to you rather than rely on the traditional Imperial Manila? If the others can be convinced that this new entity will be significantly more progessive than ARMM, then there is enough reason to vote yes in the plebiscite creating and being part of a new regional entity. 

Meanwhile, the BTC should finish the draft organic act and for them to also start communicating with key members of both Houses of Congress. The key is to have your Champions in both Houses, more than the President who is expected to support. –

Edmund S. Tayao is a professor at the University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science, and is executive director of the Local Government Development Foundation.

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