When asked if the Bangsamoro people’s lives have changed under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, I am quick to answer that it has not. What it has done is to push the Bangsamoro people deeper into poverty and anger.
If we want to gauge the impact of policies by the national government on the Moro people, we have to look into the statistics of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM. The region is composed of the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, cities of Cotabato, Marawi, and Lamitan, and 63 barangays in North Cotabato.
The region was established after the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2019 and replaced the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or the ARMM. The BOL is a product of the peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The ARMM has always been on the top list of the poorest regions in the country. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, ARMM had the highest poverty incidence among the regions in Mindanao in 2015 at 48.2% among families and 53.7 percent poverty incidence among the population.
After the 2016 elections, the Moro people were hopeful that the newly elected President from Mindanao would bring changes to the Moro people, as he would often declare having a tinge of Maranaw blood.
Come 2018 survey, poverty incidence in the autonomous region is still at its highest. This was after the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, and with the autonomous region bearing the brunt of the government’s reaction to the ISIS threat in Marawi City.
According to PSA, 61% of the 4.2 million total BARMM population were poor in 2018. According to UNICEF, 74.3% 0r 108,600 of the families were poor and child poverty is at the highest in 2018 at 68% or 1.3 million children live in poverty.
The poorest provinces in the autonomous region are where the US “war on terror” was implemented (and US soldiers were deployed). Sulu ranks the highest with 81.8%, Basilan with 72.8%, Lanao del Sur 71.2%, and Maguindanao 39.9%.
These areas are also the main targets for the latest US overseas counter-insurgency operation, Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, inked by President Duterte and former US President Donald Trump in September 2017, at the height of the military operations in Marawi City.
Before the Marawi siege, Lanao del Sur and Marawi City were always included in the top 10 provinces and cities that are considered poor. After five months of aerial bombardment and ground operations against the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Group in Marawi City, it was left in ruins and its people homeless.
According to the Asian Development Bank, damages brought about by the military operation and the siege were estimated at US$216 million or Php11.5 billion and losses US$132 million or Php7 billion with most of the impact in 24 barangays that are called the most affected areas.
As of September 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated at least 25,367 families or 126,835 individuals still displaced due to the Marawi siege. Most of the residents are still not allowed to rebuild their homes, to the point of evicting previous landowners because government rehabilitation has prioritized the building of a regiment-size military camp and tourist spots.
Added to the burden of our fellow Meranaw brothers and sisters are the foreign loans, grants, and aids that are channeled to the rehabilitation master plan. The government has accounted for at least P350 billion or US$7 billion foreign “donations” since 2017 and P30.56 billion in loans from private institutions and foreign governments. Not only are we and the next generation expected to pay for these loans, what we fear the most are strings attached to them.
BARMM in 2019 has a high poverty incidence of 53%, with a population that has lacked access to potable water affecting 48.6% of the population. Due to intensive military operations, mostly using aerial bombardment, at least 40% of the population are displaced from their communities and homes.
This data came from the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) which declared in 2019 that President Duterte plans to reduce the BARMM poverty situation in 2022, the end of his term. A year later, BARMM’s economic performance dropped by 1.9% and was recorded as the lowest decline in all regions. BARMM also recorded an increase in the unemployment rate at 21.50%.
Of course, the government blames the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for this. But we have to point out that instead of addressing the challenge of the pandemic by prioritizing the public health system, it was business as usual for the government.
In the Bangsamoro areas, military operations continued, resulting in further displacement of people in Maguindanao and Sulu. At the height of the pandemic, the government even brokered a 2.9 arms deal with the US government. In June last year, President Duterte signed into law the Anti-Terror Act of 2020.
This is the state that the government handed down to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim government of the Bangsamoro autonomous region. The BTA is composed of 80 members that were hand-picked by President Duterte. Part of the peace deal is for the BTA to be led by the MILF, thereby making the BTA composition dominated by the MILF with 41 members and the government with 39.
The BTA was only launched in February 2019 with only a few departments and employees that were carried over from the previous autonomous region. The bulk of the BTA’s work is to lay down the foundations of a parliamentary form of government.
While we cannot fault the transition government for the dire situation of the BARMM, caution should be given to the BTA leadership not to fall into copying the “development” strategy of the Duterte administration that prioritizes ambitious infrastructure building such as the Build, Build, Build program instead of the social services that the Filipino people badly need especially during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The challenge is not to embrace the neoliberal policies of wholesale selling of Bangsamoro lands to foreign corporations that invest in plantations and extractive mining. We have already seen the destruction brought by nickel mining on the island of Tawi-Tawi, with only Chinese corporations and their local business partners and politicians profiting from it.
The Bangsamoro people also bear the brunt of unemployment caused by the sudden closure of banana plantations in Mindanao. Most of the agricultural lands in Maguindanao were transformed into plantations of banana and palm oil. Some of these lands were former MILF areas that the government took over and are now being peddled by MinDA to foreign investors for plantations.
The MILF should also be very wary of the normalization program of the government. While it speaks of socio-economic packages given to decommissioned MILF combatants such as livelihood and employment assistance, normalization does not address the real problem in the Bangsamoro region which is landlessness. Added to this is the government’s anti-terror policies that force displacement and homelessness of Moro people and bring destruction to their livelihood and communities.
Giving P100,000 cash assistance and P14,000 health insurance to every decommissioned MILF combatant is not the answer to the decades-old conflict. Empowerment should not be relegated to the autonomous region alone, to the politicians and commanders ruling the transition government.
The Bangsamoro farmers, fisherfolks, plantation workers, and the rest of the marginalized who are the productive forces of our society, should also be free from the bondage of poverty and should be allowed to protect their lands – especially those that were confiscated by the government and politicians as a consequence of all-out wars.
We once heard President Duterte declared a free distribution of land in the early part of his presidency while he was still talking with the National Democratic Front on the socio-economic aspect of the peace negotiation. However, five years later farmer beneficiaries of the land reform program are still fighting the government and the landowners, with most of them being killed and red-tagged due to the government’s counter-insurgency program.
We should see through the lies that President Duterte feeds the public in his last State of the Nation Address. We should further expose what his anti-terror measures and declaration of Martial in Mindanao have done to the Moro people – his policies further pushed the Bangsamoro people deep into poverty, discriminated against, and deprived us of our rights.