BALINTATAW: Realities in Mindanao

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/20 March) – Mindanao has, for the past years, been a land of conflicts and truces for many Filipinos. News of war, bombing, evacuation and kidnappings are but a few examples of the realities that continue to unsettle and destabilize all attempts to develop the land and its many and colorful peoples.

Mindanao is and will be, for years to come, in the eye of the storm. Political peace settlements and ceasefire agreements shall remain in papers until the basic issues that spawn the storm are squarely addressed.

Root Causes of the Conflict

The classic threefold fundamental issue continues to haunt both the Southern Philippines and the central government in Manila. These are Poverty, Political Exclusion, and Injustice (real or perceived).

On Poverty. A former German Chancellor and one of the architects of “realpolitik” in Europe, Willy Brandt, once said: “While hunger rules, peace cannot prevail.”

Today, a growing worldwide consensus has been reached that recognizes poverty as “an unacceptable human condition”. In fact, poverty is considered as number one cause for the lack of peace not only in Southern Philippine but also in the world over. From the Bangsamoro communities in the ARMM and indigenous peoples of the hinterlands of Mindanao to the workers’ organizations in the urban centers and the peasant communities in the countryside, people recognize the necessity to take action against poverty. Poverty has spawned structures and social system that lead to inequality and mass social injustice.

One of the commitments to Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is reducing poverty to half by 2015. The performance is far below the mark.

This failure is very evident in Mindanao. In the economic front, the Mindanao compared to Luzon and the Visayas has the lowest per capita income. It has the largest poverty incidence and it has the least access to physical and social infrastructure as well as basic services.

Politically, Mindanawons have no access to state power as planning and decision-making are done in Metro Manila, the center of state power. And in the social sphere, there is no binding force that unites the Mindanawons except the fact that the island has been shortchanged in terms of its share of basic services and facilities from the national allocation in the past decades.

Based on Government’s Minimum Basic Needs (MBN) indicators, of the 20 poorest provinces, 14 are in Mindanao. Of the 14 poorest provinces, the five provinces of the present ARMM are found in the bottom. This reality brings to the fore that even in poverty, there are two levels – the poor and the poorest.

By all MBN indicators, the places that are identified as conflict areas are also the poorest. This alone shows the intimate relation between peace and poverty. The relation between poverty and peace is akin to a hen and egg – a veritable Gordian knot. Suffice to say that poverty is a major cause of instability in any society.

The hope of development looks dim if further viewed by the lack of public and private investments in Mindanao, notwithstanding its contribution to the economy, particularly in the area of agriculture and mineral resources. No doubt, the absence of massive investments for Mindanao’s development and infrastructures exacerbates the volatile situation in Mindanao.

Politics of Exclusion. When we speak of exclusion, what immediately comes to mind is Mindanawons’ real and active participation in national governance. Even a superficial look at the different branches of government, one immediately notices the “token” presence of Mindanawons in general and Muslims and Indigenous people in particular in our national Offices, Commissions and Bureaucracy.

We keep on speaking of national unity and “isang bansa” but in real terms these slogan means “their” (kanila) national unity and “kanilang bangsa”. We have no Mindanawon or Muslim presence in the Supreme Court. We have a “token” presence in the Appellate Court. The same is true in other branches of government. We have a “token” presence in the Cabinet and Government hierarchy, Constitutional Commissions, Bureaus, AFP/PNP Generals, Government Corporations and Financial Institutions, etc.

The Politics of exclusion becomes a glaring fact that pesters social cohesion when measured in terms of ethnicity, religion and cultures. Peoples of other faiths and cultures cannot identify with a so-called national identity and unity that is based on the culture and religion of the majority. Is it intolerance in the name of secular state to be denied of a fundamental right to organize family and community according to their own set of beliefs? The majority people whose culture and belief are “constitutionalized” and “legislated” would NOT notice the “imposition”. Yet peoples who constitute minority and who are, often, “excluded”, the same laws and constitution indicate the tyranny of the majority and the exclusion of the minority.

Inequality. When people talk of inequality they refer to the justice system and inequitable distribution of the fruits of the earth. Whether real and perceived, inequality is a major source of instability in our community. The perception that Mindanao’s wealth and rich natural resources do not redound to the benefit of the peoples of the land will always fuel politics of secession not only Mindanao but in all parts of the globe. The understanding that Mindanao is a resource-rich land to be exploited and its people are cheap labor for hire does not augur well for long-term peace and development.

When we speak of the justice system and the rule of law, Mindanao is an example of a near collapse of system that administers justice. First, the scalawags both in the AFP and the PNP are thrown in Mindanao. Justice system and judges in remote provinces are rare. Lawlessness like kidnappings, drug trafficking are at its worst. Then the perceived collusion between the lawless elements and law enforcers is the ultimate blow that almost makes Mindanao as a veritable basket case!

With the realities of poverty, politics of exclusion and inequality, are we surprised why peace and security in Mindanao remains very illusive and why the island is considered fertile ground for rebellion and secession?

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Balintataw is Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado’s column for the weekly Mindanao Cross in Cotabato City)