Editor’s Note: Belying Mindanao’s stunning natural landscape and its vibrant cultural diversity is a troubled history of war, social instability, extreme poverty and cycles of failed peace efforts. Contrary to the intentions of its perpetrators, the 2017 Marawi siege revitalized peace efforts in the region — ultimately resulting in Bangsamoro autonomy in 2019. The largely untold story of these successes is the role that Bangsamoro women played at every level of the peace process. In the fourth piece of USIP’s editorial series examining the conflict-marred Southern Philippines, Aliah Adam draws on her unique experiences and the perspectives of the local populations she works with to identify some key challenges currently facing Mindanao and the ongoing role of Bangsamoro women as peacemakers.
Peace is the new battle cry for the island of Mindanao. Situated in the southern Philippines, the region is among the poorest in the nation despite natural resources and promising agrarian assets. Mindanao is also prone to calamities, from clashes between the military and armed groups and violent clan feuds to seasonal natural disasters, that regularly displace entire communities. These unrelenting disruptions to our social, political and economic lives have impacted generations.
But it is war that has had the most constant and devastating presence. For 400 years, the Moro have resisted colonial and other outside forces. Since the late-1960s, it has been the conflict between the Philippine government and armed groups that has dominated our lives. More recently, the presence of the Islamic State group in Mindanao and their brutal siege of my home city of Marawi in 2017 was a reminder that we could not allow another peace process to fail.
For many people, particularly Marawi women, firsthand experiences of the siege motivated us to commit our lives to peacebuilding. The establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in 2019 was a source of great hope that a lasting peace could finally be achieved. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) was appointed by Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte to accomplish the goals of the two-track peace process and to take the region to its first elections in May 2022. Such were the challenges and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that the transition period was recently extended by another three years. The stakes are now higher than ever and Bangsamoro women must do even more on the frontlines of the struggle for peace. My team of Bangsamoro women regularly travels throughout the BARMM to support local communities. The following are some of the key issues to emerge from those engagements.
Local Perceptions of BTA Performance Mirror Inclusivity Concerns
How the Bangsamoro people judge the BTA’s performance is one of the most important predictors for their commitment to the peace process. A study by the Mindanao People’s Caucus found that most people are satisfied with the BTA and understand that building a bureaucracy and delivering peace dividends takes time. When I have spoken with local communities throughout the BARMM, I have noticed that those living in Maguindanao, especially near the BARMM’s capital of Cotabato City, generally tend to be satisfied with the BTA’s performance. This is unsurprising as its ministries regularly engage in activities and programs in those nearby communities, not to mention that Maguindanaons have the highest representation among BTA ministers and staffers.
In contrast, Maranao majority communities in Lanao del Sur tend to express less supportive sentiments about the BTA with many highlighting that the government has few Maranao ministers. Such concerns are even stronger in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, where Tausog-majority communities also feel geographically distant. Such trends highlight inclusivity concerns — both perceived and real — about the Bangsamoro government. The risk is that any unequal distribution of peace dividends may fuel ethnic, cultural and rural-urban divides. Also, how people think about these issues strongly influences whether they support the extension of the transition period. When my team and I interview locals, those who are happy with the BTA’s performance support the transition extension, while those who are unhappy perceive the extension as corrupt and anti-democratic. Overall, hopes remain high among the Bangsamoro and most support the BTA’s extension, as evident in the popularity of peace caravan demonstrations in support of the legislation.
BTA’s Extension Brings New Uncertainties
The extension of the BARMM’s transition period may bring more time to achieve the two-track peace process, but it has not relieved the pressures on Bangsamoro authorities and civil society. In fact, it brings new pressures and uncertainties. For instance, there is growing concern about the sustainability of the national government’s Block Grant, which formally ends in 2029, and the need for the BARMM to generate revenue that must be equal or above the released Block Grant to fill the gap. Any deficit would impact ministries that do not generate income (e.g., the Ministry of Public Order and Safety) much harder than those that do generate revenue. There are also significant issues with the normalization track to decommission combatants. Many former fighters who have been processed through the normalization track only received a lump sum of 100,000 pesos of the one million pesos promised to them by the government while others have discovered that previous criminal convictions are thwarting their participation in socioeconomic programs. The great concern is that desperate former combatants may succumb to the appeal of violent extremist groups, other armed actors or a life of crime to survive.
While the practicalities of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination hesitancy are a problem in the BARMM, the greater concern is how these problems are negatively influencing the BARMM’s political culture. Vote buying remains a problem and there are anecdotal reports of candidates already distributing cash house-to-house to secure votes in communities hit hard by the pandemic. Also, many still do not understand the general function and importance of the region’s shift to a parliamentary form of government. More needs to be done to inform local communities about the BARMM’s parliamentary system, how it is different to the executive form of government and why it matters to them.
Bangsamoro’s Peacebuilding Women Rise Together
Women from all backgrounds, ethnicities and religions have played a central role in establishing civil society groups and proactively engaging in peacebuilding activities in their local communities. Yet, there is a lack of formal engagement with women in ongoing peace process activities despite it being well-established that a gender perspective is essential for any peacebuilding to be successful. This also requires everyone, especially those in authority, to recognize the variety of ways that women contribute to peace. Many women have risen above their circumstances and taken on leadership roles in civil society while others have volunteered to help local reconciliation and recovery activities. Other women have stayed strong and focused on their families to ensure the next generation remains resilient and committed to peace. I highlight this because women play a range of formal and informal roles to support peace in Mindanao and we must recognize and encourage all these activities. Bangsamoro women are part of a vibrant cultural system that gives meaning to their lives and the lives of others.
The struggle for peace is an opportunity for us, as women, to define and redefine our roles and relationships as individuals, in our families, our communities and in the whole society. Women must play a role in understanding and addressing all the challenges that face the BARMM. To do so, women must have formal positions at every level of the autonomous region and its government while ensuring Bangsamoro girls have access to education and the opportunities necessary to succeed in such positions in the future. Moving forward, Bangsamoro women need opportunities to be full, equal and active participants in the BARMM’s economic, political and social life. From the international community, training and educational support tailored to meet the needs of Bangsamoro women is greatly needed and appreciated. Together, Bangsamoro women will work together to build peace and fight injustice.