By Zainudin Malang
FIVE years ago, my last mission in Mindanao before going on deployment in East Africa was to organize protection accompaniment for the return of thousands of civilians from several villages in Central Mindanao. They were displaced by heavy bombardment of the SPMS box by the military who were trying to drive out the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement-Bangsamororo Islamic Freedom Fighters, the group that splintered from the MILF-Biaf.
They said they never experienced that intense bombing even during martial law in Marcos’ time. The bombardment had subsided and they were desperate to return to their homes – the lack of food aid at the evac sites and the miserable conditions of their shelters gave them no choice. So, we helped arrange for their safe return.
Five years later – a new peace agreement, a new organic law, another plebiscite and a new set-up later – Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, approximately16,000 individuals were displaced since Monday, also because of heavy bombardment and fighting, this time involving fighter jets. The same place, the same type of operation, between the same groups, affecting the same villages. The numbers of IDPs (internally displaced persons) are expected to grow in the coming days.
Five years interim and the situation hasn’t changed much. It is true that the Barmm is only weeks old so it will be unfair to expect it to produce results. But the peace process is more than just a few weeks old. From the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) just two months from the return of the villagers I accompanied five years ago, that should have heralded a change in environment, a steady build up of confidence in the peace process, on its promise. Recent events have shown otherwise.
I am well aware that my friends among local and international stakeholders have been in self-congratulatory mood since last year – actually, since 2014 when the CAB was signed. But for long time followers of the peace process like me, who have seen all its cyclical ups and downs, we see something disturbing underneath all the celebration. I have in particular have been taking note of the continuing growth of the Biff, the entry of the Isis (I actually warned that some of the Isis I was seeing leave Iraq while I was working there will end up in Mindanao), the large scale military operations and repeated civilian displacements, the suicide bombing/s, etc. the continuing discrimination and harrassment of Moros outside the Barmm, etc.
This may pop some groups’ party balloons and be resented particularly by the newbie observers and players in the peace process. However, even back when I was still working on Mindanao issues and was frequently sought out for coffee meetings by embassy folks, foreign scholars and experts, aid agencies, and media, I have always been known as a party pooper, the one who gave everyone else a reality check.
“If you want BS, invite someone else for coffee,” I would tease them. But my voice was eventually drowned by those who prefer to see rainbows and unicorns and so, I became like the tragic Greek figure Cassandra whose dark prognosis was often ignored even if they invariably became true. Soon, the coffee invites stopped and I, too, stopped caring.
Now, Cassandra predicts that it will be a long haul, that things will get worse before it gets better. Whether or not the new autonomous set-up will bring changes in the security environment and increase the people’s level of confidence, we probably won’t know until after the expiration of the transition period of the Barmm. For one, the public is expecting it to address the security issue. But they, the public, have not been made aware that the Barmm was denied having its own security force under Republic Act 11054 (Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao). Even the police will continue to be under Philippine National Police (PNP) — the same PNP that sent those troops into Mamasapano in January 2015. We will see little change other than in name from PRO-Armm (Police Regional Office-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) to PRO-Barmm.
Cliché but all Cassandras like to say they pray their forecasts are wrong. Same with this one. Past and current prognosis are all meant to give the public a reality check which we hope will help bring them closer to the self-governing and self-determined future they want.
(Zainudin Malang is a lawyer from Mindanao who spent years on deployment in acute emergencies in East Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he was the founding head of a human rights and civilian protection organization in Mindanao and was one of the five members of the peace process monitoring body. He is currently on a break and shuttles between Cotabato and Manila.)