SPECIAL REPORT: Who’s afraid of a Bangsamoro sub-state? (6)

(Questions the Bishops and Business execs asked of the MILF peace panel)
Last of six parts: Will conflict take a backseat?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/06 April) –  Much of the wealth in the proposed “Bangsamoro sub-state” such as “(natural) gas, oil, gold and other natural resources,” Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told business executives here on March 31, “remains largely untouched” and “we cannot get or tap these by ourselves for obvious reasons: we need good businessmen or investors as partners.”

“But before we can go with this venture,” he said, “we need to solve the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao first.”

A day before the dialogue with the business sector at the Waterfront Insular Hotel,  the MILF met with Catholic bishops at the Bishops-Ulama Conference office, where, among others, they pointed, in response to the bishops’ queries, to provisions in their draft peace pact, on freedom of religion and freedom of the indigenous peoples (Lumads) to join or not join them in the proposed sub-state.

Antonio Kinoc, a B’laan datu who is an alternate member of the MILF peace panel, repeated to the business sector what he told the bishops a day earlier, that joining the Bangsamoro is “not forced. It’s a choice.”

“ If you do not want to be a part, say so. If you want to be a part, oaky. Nobody forces anybody, just like religion, nobody forces you,” Kinoc said.

Iqbal told the business sector, “we are giving them (IPs) free choice to adopt Bangsamoro.”

Another panel member, Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga, asked the bishops to read the two sections in the draft on personal and family relations being governed by “the personal laws, Shari’a or other religious laws, customs or traditions of those persons concerned” and that all religious bodies or associations “in respect of their right to own properties and to enjoy other rights in regard to their institutions, foundations, and other assets intended for purposes of worship, education, or charity, are guaranteed.”

While many asked questions or sought clarifications, some business executives shared their experiences as investors in the areas that are part of the proposed “Bangsamoro sub-state.”

CK Chang, a Malaysian national who has been in the country for 26 years and is chief executive officer of Agusan Plantations, Inc., said his friends told him “you are crazy” for putting up an oil palm business in Maguindanao. He said he has 130 Moro growers and has “never been harassed by the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) or MILF.”

Ed Bullecer, manager of Paglas Corporation, noted there is too much “fear of the unknown” but  in their case, he said, they have plantations in Buluan, Maguindanao, and in Wao and Bombaran in Lanao del Sur which are conflict areas and their plantations are “not gated, not fenced.”

“This is not based on speculation, this is an actual experience: we found investments in those communities to be – there are challenges which are present anywhere else – but these investments were not  more difficult than they are in areas outside the ARMM (Autonomous Reigon in Muslim Minndaao),” Bullecer said.

The ARMM is the core area of the proposed “Bangsamoro sub-state.”

“We consider the MILF as a very positive and stabilizing factor in our investments. I just thought this is something we may share as businessmen in the ARMM in relation to the MILF presence,” Bullecer added.

The “fear of the unknown,” however, persists. And the general perception among the business sector in the country, is still what CK Chang said colleagues had told him, that doing business in the Moro areas is “crazy.”

Vicente Lao, chair of the Mindanao Business Council, took note of these fears and perceptions in his closing remarks.

He said people in business are “very practical people. We go in where there are opportunities.”

He lamented that while the ARMM is “full of potentials with all its natural resources,” investors are shying away because of security problems.

He recalled that after the botched, Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) of 2008,  the MinBC gathered representatives of the business sector “from different areas, from the IPs and from Christians” and gave the results of their consultations to the government peace  panel for it to “sift through that and maybe you can find the answers.”

He said the MILF joined them on their last leg of consultations, with the Management Association of the Philippines in Manila, “to present to our big brothers in the MAP what are really the aspirations of the MILF for the investors in Manila to come to Mindanao.” He said the MAP members “were very surprised that the needs of the MILF are very, very simple, that they can already do that on the ground and they’re doing that in their corporate responsibility, only it is not being properly channeled.”

“So we would like to request the MILF if it can do something about it, like removing this perception of kidnapping, things like these, because you know, this needs to have some political will,” he said.

Lao cited the execution of the three Filipinos found to be trafficking drugs in China. “It is not that the country does not want to respect the Filipino OFW but….  in Chinese we have a  saying, ‘you have to kill the chicken to teach the monkey.’ So if you want your laws to be respected, then you have to give an example…  Look at our entry records, you have there ‘death to traffickers’ but the Philippines has been very famous wherein you can buy liberty even if you are a drug trafficker. So it only goes to show that if you want to enforce your laws, you have to have political will and maybe for us to eliminate kidnapping in the ARMM area, it may be for the MILF to say, ‘if you do kidnapping and somebody dies, you will be executed.’ Maybe that will eliminate a lot of… because maybe there are really hoodlums in the areas that are not afraid. If you do that, then maybe the investors might (not hestitate)  in going to the ARMM area. Because the business sector believes this conflict cannot be resolved in the military fashion. The only solution to this is through an economic solution. When people are not hungry and they have a good livelihood and they have a good job, then political ideas and conflict take a backseat because everybody is busy doing, earning a living.”

The MILF draft has three sections on “Administration of Justice,” including creating an office of the prosecutor “responsible for prosecuting individuals who violate criminal laws of the state before its courts.”

Lao said the economic solution “might be one of the temporary solutions to development in the ARMM,” but acknowledged that, “of course we still  need to go through our legal process because the identity of our (Moro brothers) still needs to be addressed but the  immediate solution of development in the ARMM, I strongly believe, needs to be addressed and I think the practical way of solving that is to give that perception that investors going into your area will be properly protected. .. that’s a simple proposal from the business sector. I do not know if it’s workable from the MILF point of view but it might go a long way in assuaging the investors that we have in Manila that if you’re going to that area, you don’t’ have to worry that you will get kidnapped,” Lao said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)