The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), which exercises executive and legislative powers as the interim regional government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), was officially inaugurated in March 2019. Six months later, interim BTA Chief Minister and concurrent Chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim had come to the conclusion that “Running a government is thrice more difficult than running a revolution.”
Indeed, the transformation of armed rebels into rulers/politicians and a revolutionary organization into a form of government has been identified as one of the most critical factors in explaining the successful transition from violence to sustainable peace in any post-conflict country. In other words, this difficulty is not unique to the MILF.
Considering the complexity of conflict and violence in the region, including violent extremism, as seen in the Marawi Siege in 2017 and in the clan feuds that impact local politics, as well as the previous autonomous government’s weak governance, the interim government faces a big challenge in meeting the demands of the underprivileged Bangsamoro people, who have been suffering oppression and marginalization for almost 50 years. The BARMM (previously the ARMM) has long been the most impoverished region in the Philippines, despite its high economic potential by virtue of its rich natural resources. In addition, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had become apparent that the transition of power and new political order in the region was causing violent polarization of (and even within) diverse identity groups such as the MILF, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), non-Islamized or non-Moro Indigenous peoples, and local clans. Especially contentious were questions of land and natural resources, and any forms of resource allocation of public goods and service.
More than one year of significant achievement has already passed since the official inauguration of the BARMM in March 2019. Despite some transitional delays, the BTA has tried to institutionalize “moral governance,” which has been made a priority in the government’s 12-point agendas under the interim chief minister’s leadership. The government approved the Transition Plan and the Bangsamoro Development Plan, which provide the basis for running the interim government during the transition period (2019–2022). It has also established the BARMM Full Disclosure Policy Portal and the e-BARMM system under the Ministry of Public Works, as well as installing an information dissemination system that incorporates social media and radio through the Bureau of Public Information. The BTA also launched a Bangsamoro Job Portal for new recruitment based on merit. Each of the above steps represents efforts to combat corruption by ensuring accountability and transparency. It is fair to say that most of these efforts were not observed under the MNLF-led ARMM regional government.
Aside from the overwhelming tasks that any interim government must tackle during the transition period, the COVID-19 pandemic is now impacting the region and the Philippines as a whole. The first case in the BARMM was confirmed in a Lanao del Sur resident on March 11. As of August 12, there have been 498 cases in total among the region’s population of more than 5 million, out of which 172 cases are active. The BARMM has seen five reported COVID-19 deaths. The number of cases has risen since the national government eased lockdown restrictions in June and allowed residents from the region who had been stranded in Manila to return home. Although efforts are being made to quickly establish a regional health care system, this measure might not be enough if the outbreak cannot be contained, as can be seen in Metropolitan Manila.
Given the above situation, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the interim government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can, however, be said that the way the government handles the pandemic will determine its political legitimacy, especially in the transitional setting. Paradoxically, this crisis can be viewed as a good opportunity for the interim government, as a strange coin, as it were, to gain legitimacy. In this sense, the interim government seems to be performing fairly well thus far, despite weak governance and a limited number of officials due to the ongoing recruitment process.
In alignment with Proclamation No. 922 issued by the Office of the President on March 9, which declared a state of public health emergency, the Bangsamoro interim government set up a COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on March 13 as an emergency operation center in the BARMM. The task force is composed of all ministers, offices, and agencies of the BARMM, including local government units (LGUs). Immediately after the establishment of the IATF, the interim government distributed relief assistance to residents affected by community quarantine and allotted 1.6 billion Philippine pesos ($32.7 million) to fight the pandemic. Out of that, 155 million pesos went to LGUs as quick response funds, thus facilitating massive relief operations, such as providing medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the island provinces and equipping COVID-19 referral hospitals across the region.
In addition, interim government initiatives have also strengthened the region’s COVID-19 health care and pandemic containment systems. It is notable that in May, the national Department of Health issued a license to the Cotabato Regional and Medical Center (CRMC) to operate the first ever testing laboratory for COVID-19 in the region, joining 66 other centers in the country; the center was established after the CRMC received funds (14.1 million pesos) from the interim government to procure and upgrade medical and laboratory supplies to perform diagnostic testing. Furthermore, isolation facilities have been constructed in the region under the Bangsamoro Ministry of Public Works to accommodate the increasing number of locally-stranded individuals and returning overseas Filipino workers. As of July 16, the government has facilitated the homecoming of 15,184 individuals from Sabah, Malaysia.
Despite the above-mentioned efforts and achievements, the interim government still faces challenges ahead. Given the region’s fragile health care system and cramped living conditions, especially in evacuation and transitory sites, coupled with the limited access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities as well as to supplies and health care, the displaced, conflict-affected people in the region remain the most at risk. Moreover, the socioeconomic impact should not be underestimated. The Philippine Statistics Authority reported that this June, unemployment in the BARMM had significantly increased to 29.8 percent, up from 8 percent last year. The pandemic’s socioeconomic consequences might exacerbate the existing inequalities among the most at-risk groups, potentially adding to social tensions and the polarization of identity groups, especially in the region’s conflict-affected areas.
The government’s COVID-19 response has impacted the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro, which was signed in 2014 between the Philippine government and the MILF, especially with regard to the normalization process, which involves security issues (policing and decommissioning of rebel fighters), a socioeconomic development program, confidence-building measures, and transitional justice and reconciliation. The second phase of the decommissioning process for 12,000 (out of 40,000) MILF combatants (35 percent) was completed only recently, in March 2020, and the third phase will commence this year. Upon the assessment by the Third Party Monitoring Team, the peace process will be concluded with an exit document, which will verify the full implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro, if agreed upon by both the Philippines government and the MILF.
More specifically, the transition from the ARMM to the BARMM is set to reach completion after the first group of legislators, consisting of 80 members of parliament, is elected in June 2022. With a delayed transition process, partly due to COVID-19, the interim government must accelerate the formation of a new organizational structure and new bureaucrats to effectively deliver services to the people; this involves enacting six priority codes and hiring new officials, as stipulated in Republic Act 11054 (or the Bangsamoro Organic Law). Loss of political legitimacy in the BARMM could destabilize the transition, potentially triggering local politics and strengthening Islamic State-affiliated violent extremist groups, which could create significant security gaps.
MILF Chairman Murad precisely articulated all the above points when he said, “Meeting the Moro people’s expectations is the biggest challenge.” The way in which the interim government functions — including its COVID-19 response during this already challenging transitional period — will be crucial to unifying the fragmented Bangsamoro society and strengthening collaborative relations with the national government toward sustainable peace in Mindanao. More importantly, it should be understood that the stability and peace in Mindanao will have a direct impact on the whole Indo-Pacific region.
Dr. Miyoko Taniguchi is a senior advisor on Peacebuilding at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the JICA.