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The announcement that the Philippines is open to providing sanctuary to 3,000 “boat people” – the desperately hungry and sickly Rohingyan and Bangladeshi men, women, and children straddling the high seas for far too long – naturally stirred tremendous sense of pride in my heart.
With our neighbors in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand expressing unwillingness to welcome these refugees, our country has once again proven itself to be a haven for persecuted minorities across the world. It was a heartening reflection of the best humanitarian instincts among the Filipino people.
With Christian-majority Philippines so openly welcoming Muslim refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, neighboring Muslim countries are bound to come under growing pressure to revisit their current policy – after years of welcoming large numbers of refugees from seas – of pushing back the “boat people” into the high seas. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are already in the midst of high-level talks to craft best possible responses to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
There are reportedly 6,000 refugees trapped in high seas, searching for a safe destination to drop anchor. Many of them belong to the Rohingya minority group in Myanmar, which have struggled to attain full-fledged citizenship and, in recent years, have had to escape intensified religious-ethnic persecution. Out of about 1.3. million Rohingyans in Myanmar, more than 140,000 of them have been forced to leave their homes.
As one of Asia’s oldest democracies, and a bastion of cosmopolitanism, the Philippines has consistently served as an all-embracing land, welcoming 1,500 Jewish refugees during World War II and thousands of more Vietnamese during the Cold War.
With such illustrious legacy, the Philippines’ recent decision to welcome refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh should have registered little surprise. And this is precisely why we should begin to also address one of the perennial challenges to Philippine democracy and development: The decades-long conflict in Mindanao, which has claimed the lives of 200,000 people, led to the displacement of millions, and contributed to a general state of extreme poverty and lawlessness in the southern portions of the Philippines. Our Muslim Filipino brothers have been the primary victims of this vicious cycle.
1. Establishing a pluralistic democracy
First and foremost, we need to end the conflict in Mindanao on fundamental moral grounds. The true measure of a democracy is not in how it reflects the will of the majority. That is nothing but the tyranny of numbers. A true democracy represents a political system where the minority is protected from the perilous whims of the majority. It is about protecting vulnerable minority groups against discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Persistent conflict and poverty in Mindanao, affecting millions of innocent civilians belonging to a religious minority, undermines any attempt at achieving a full-fledged democracy in the Philippines. Providing a measure of politico-economic and socio-cultural autonomy to religious minority groups – particularly the perennially marginalized Muslim Filipinos, who bravely resisted Western colonization for hundreds of years – serves as a critical step in consolidating our democratic goals. As much as we should be proud of welcoming persecuted groups from around the world, we should also strive to improve the conditions of our own minority groups.
2. Reorienting our national security strategy
No nation-state can fully defend itself from external predation when it is absorbed by domestic upheavals. For decades, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has had to confront violent insurgency and full-blown rebellions among marginalized sectors in the society.
For the past four decades, the AFP has had to not only contend with major revolutionary organizations such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and, its splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but also a whole host of smaller, diffused, and highly radical elements such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). For an archipelagic country with one of the largest coastal territories in the world, the Philippines has a disproportionately small naval fleet and coast guard capability, because much of its defense-related resources has been invested in land-based warfare in troubled regions of the country.
Embroiled in counter-insurgency operations, the AFP has struggled to build up its capabilities against external threats. As the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea enter a critical stage, with China gradually achieving the capability to fully drive out other claimant states from the area, there has been much talk about the AFP’s ability to defend the Philippines’ territorial integrity. Yet, without resolving the conflict in Mindanao, the Philippines will continue to struggle to devote sufficient resources to achieve minimum deterrence capability against Chinese maritime adventurism.
Moreover, the Philippine state’s excessive focus on domestic insurgency has dangerously distracted it from developing a comprehensive strategy to confront emerging threats from without. No wonder, we have had little choice but to constantly seek help from allies and international legal bodies to defend our national interest.
3. Comprehensive national development
In recent years, the Philippines has emerged as the darling of international investors, with many analysts portraying the country as Asia’s next tiger economy. But the Philippines’ economic growth has been largely concentrated in the industrialized regions, disproportionately benefiting a small circle of family-dominated businesses.
The recently-generated growth does not only lack inclusiveness, but it also fails to optimize the tremendous potentials of the Filipino people, especially in conflict-ridden regions of Mindanao, which lack basic infrastructure and a modicum of law and order. Blessed with fertile lands, talented people, affordable labor, and reportedly between US$840 billion to US$1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, Mindanao is an economic bonanza in waiting. Domestic entrepreneurs and international investors, however, will not step in unless there is a peaceful settlement between the Philippine government and key rebel groups in the area.
Passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) – with all its supposed defects and potential dissonance with constitutional provisions – alone will not resolve the pandemonium in Mindanao. The BBL provides, at best, the legal foundation of a long-term peacebuilding and development project in the area. But it is, as the famous Chinese proverb goes, the first step in a journey of thousand miles. – Rappler.com
The author is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.” “The author’s views are strictly his own, and do not necessarily represent the institutions he is affiliated with. He can be reached email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian