Autonomy for a Muslim Region in the Philippines Could End Decades of Violence

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For decades, poverty in the resource-rich island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines has been exacerbated by an insurgency. The rebels want a majority-Muslim section of the island to break away from the rest of the country, which is overwhelmingly Catholic. With a recent vote for greater self-rule, the area now has a realistic chance for change.

In a Jan. 21 referendum, the Muslim region overwhelmingly favored the creation of a political unit, Bangsamoro, that would have its own parliament, greater federal funding, and full control of the area’s natural resources, which had previously been shared with the national government. The new unit will govern a greater territory than the system it’s replacing, thanks to the addition of Cotabato, one of the more prosperous cities on the island, which opted to be included. Other, smaller areas will vote on Feb. 6 on whether they want to join.

The vote was the culmination of years of government peace talks with rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, who sought greater autonomy in exchange for laying down their arms after a four-decade struggle that’s killed tens of thousands. (Bangsamoro succeeds the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the Front criticized for a lack of autonomy, in spite of its name.) The Bangsamoro framework—which requires the government to pour 5 billion pesos ($95 million) annually into the Muslim region for the next decade to aid in rebuilding—stands to propel growth in the poorest part of the Philippines, according to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez. “We have the chance to recover the lost years, to redeem the lost generations,” he said in a Jan. 28 statement.

The Muslim region’s economy—already among the fastest-growing in the country—is expected to expand 7.4 percent once the framework is in place, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency. That will have little benefit to the overall growth picture for the Philippines, says London-based Capital Economics, which slowed to a three-year low of 6.2 percent in 2018.

Nevertheless, the success of the referendum is also a success for President Rodrigo Duterte, who hails from Mindanao. Apart from being the site of the ongoing conflict, Mindanao is home to an estimated $300 billion of mineral deposits. Duterte supported the autonomy vote as a way to deliver on a campaign pledge to achieve peace and increase development in the south as a whole. While almost half of Philippine citizens are still undecided about the region’s new status, according to a survey done by pollster Social Weather Stations, a large majority of the Muslim population supports it.

More autonomy may not be enough to fully address security issues, says Amina Rasul, who heads the think tank Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy. Just days after the referendum, two explosions killed at least 20 people in a Catholic church in Sulu province, whose vote against joining the Bangsamoro region was overwhelmed by the tallies in surrounding areas. The Islamic State claimed the attack, but police said a local bandit group may be behind the blasts, which happened while Mindanao is under martial law.

The region will also need the national government’s help while it transitions to greater self-rule, says Ishak Mastura, who heads the area’s investment authority. Poor infrastructure, high electricity costs, and a cumbersome bureaucracy could still deter investment. Infrastructure projects worth more than 22 billion pesos ($422 million) have been lined up for the region this year, on top of the expected funding support, says the economic planning agency.

“If you’re an investor who wants quick returns and doesn’t want challenges, then our region may not be for you,” Mastura says. “If you’re someone who understands the risks and you’re looking for an opportunity to be the first mover, you can take a chance on us.”

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