Elections in The Philippines: New Hope for Peace?

 
 

Ask anyone about the symbol of peace and they will immediately talk about a dove, possibly carrying an olive branch in its beak. Probably sketched by Picasso in beautiful blue freehand. That could all be about to change if one loquacious businessman from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, gets his way.

Vicente Lao fervently believes that economic development in Bangsamoro — a proposed autonomous region in the Philippines — should go ahead despite the derailment of the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). We met him recently in Davao, Mindanao as he returned from visiting a duck farm in the United Kingdom. He says that ducks could contribute to tackling poverty in Mindanao.

With its fertile lands, mild climate and abundant vegetation, Mindanao has been called the “land of promise” and has enormous potential for the development of agriculture and eco-tourism.

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But the area is also host to decades of conflict, with both Muslim and Communist rebels fighting against the government in Manila.  As with many conflicts, the root causes of the violence in Mindanao are land and resources: the Muslim population has struggled for access to land since colonization by Christian settlers. Today, it remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country, with almost half its people living in poverty.

This accentuates the vital role business can play in contributing – directly and indirectly – to the prevention and resolution of violent conflict as it can foster equitable wealth and well-being.

“Poverty is the root cause of conflict,” proclaims Lao. He is convinced that more investment is needed in Muslim Mindanao, specifically investment that is sensitive to different community needs. This will help build the economic underpinning of peace. It’s a positive cycle: a safer Mindanao will lead to investment, development, and new jobs for local people.

“These ducks are hardy,” he tells us. “They can survive with little care and within three months, when the ducks are fully grown, communities can already start making a living from them. In six months they can be on their way to crossing the poverty threshold.”

In a world rightly absorbed by Syria and the wider region, most people have forgotten some of the world’s longest-running wars are still limping on, looking for ways out of their impasses.

In Colombia, the government is systematically hammering out a comprehensive peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Communist guerrillas after a shocking 51 years’ of war, and has most recently brought other rebels to the negotiating table.

Likewise in the Philippines, the government of current president Benigno S. Aquino III had been hoping to deliver a new legislative program of devolution, the so-called Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Fifteen years on from the signing of the Agreement on Peace with the MILF fighters, this key promise is yet to be met. With the singing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro in 2014, the prospects were looking good, but were tragically undermined by the Mamasapano clash in January 2015, which left 66 dead including 44 policemen and civilians — one a 5-year-old girl. The nation reeled and opposition to the Muslim fighters stiffened.

A year on, the government made another attempt to pass the BBL. But by now, the president and the parliament were more concerned with the upcoming general election on May 9, and certainly didn’t want to throw away votes by passing a law that could be unpopular with mainstream voters outside Mindanao.

After months of work, the peace agreement stumbled at the final hurdle. Some worry that a new parliament could re-open all the old debates again, and the rebel commanders could struggle to restrain their restless troops. However, others are hoping a new president and congress would open a space for truly embedding “peace” in the draft legislation.

In February, we met Teresita Ging Deles, who has been negotiating the peace deal on behalf of the Office of the President. She remains solidly optimistic that a new level of trust has been built with the leadership of the MILF and gives them credit for staying calm despite the legislative set-back. The community of peacebuilders is certainly ready to come back fresh in May, with a new president and a new congress, to try again to get the law passed, and the peace truly embedded.

We at International Alert have been talking to all the presidential candidates in the Philippines, urging them to pass an inclusive law that would establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. We have also been pushing for the new government to address itself to the Communist conflict, which has received less attention in recent years but still drags on.

But the economy always resurfaces as the vital ingredient for peace. On April 1, three peasants were killed and over a hundred wounded following an attack on protesting farmers demanding urgent relief from the government due to drought, hunger, and the destruction of their crops brought about by El Nino weather events.

International Alert’s Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System has indeed found that violence often spikes in the hungry season, before harvest, when farmers have no money.

Furthermore, the rise in violence due to shadow economies — illicit drugs, illegal weapons, and illegal mining, as well as common crimes such as robbery — is adding to instability. Minimizing the conflict risks of these informal economies must also be high on the to-do list of any new government elected in May.

The poorer people are, the fewer economic opportunities they face, the easier it will always be for criminal gangs to recruit members. That is why initiatives to stimulate the local economy are so important.

The people of the Philippines have shown huge resilience during decades of bloodshed. Their hopes for peace remain — and no one’s more so than Mr. Lao, as he gets his ducks in a row.

Harriet Lamb is CEO of International Alert in November 2015. She previously served as CEO of Fairtrade International (FLO) and Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation. This comment was written with Kloe Carvajal.

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