Peace in Bangsamoro region achievable but Sulu remains volatile, says expert

Institute for Autonomy and Governance Development Consulting Inc’s chief operating officer, Ishak Mastura.

KOTA KINABALU: The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim-Mindanao (BARM) is expected to stabilise politically and socially within the next five years, judging by the way the Philippine government and the BARM transitional government are handling the peace building efforts.

Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) Development Consulting Inc’s chief operating officer, Ishak Mastura, said it is crucial for both sides to handle the peace process safely.

“The situation is delicate and can easily deteriorate if outside elements come in to disrupt it or if one side feels there are broken promises or that the people’s expectations remain unfulfilled,” Ishak said.

He believes the people in the region long for peace and, except for the 2017 Marawi siege, things have been quite peaceful in the largely violent region with its history of armed fighting and domestic terrorism.

Ishak said the only fear now is that some groups may feel they are being left out of the peace process and, with their military capabilities, could start fresh disturbances and plunge the region into another domestic chaos.

At the moment, the government is waiting for the various armed groups, reportedly numbering about 12,000 fighters, to surrender their guns as scheduled by the end of this year.

Once the decommissioning is completed, the government security forces will take over the security in the region, long filled by the two main factions – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

There are many who questioned the Philippine government’s rationale in holding talks with MILF instead of MNLF but Ishak said such opinion is unfounded as the MNLF has already signed the peace agreement in 1996.

The real fear, he said, is the fact that one of the region’s most powerful and influential leaders, Nur Misuari, did not join BARM.

“However, I believe the problem will be minimal because President Rodrigo Duterte talks directly to Misuari and has promised an arrangement to accommodate him in the Sulu archipelago.

“I don’t know how he would do it because we already have BARM. But that is his promise to Misuari. Duterte must resolve this problem and I think that is in the pipeline,” he said.

Ishak said the problem is Misuari never clarified what he really wants for Sulu although he is said to have preferred federalism to BARM.

He said if things are not resolved in the Sulu archipelago, any disturbances in the area would have a direct impact on Sabah’s security as happened in the past.

“The problem in central Mindanao does not affect Sabah. But the ones in the Sulu archipelago and the Sulu sea will. Currently, this problem has not been resolved by the peace process with MILF. So, things are still hanging right now,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said there is hope for lasting peace since Duterte is popular – an important trait in the Filipino society – and the people also want peace.

Barring outside elements such as imported foreign fighters to derail the peace process, Ishak expects BARM and the neighbouring regions to finally enjoy peace and start carrying out its economic and social development programmes within the next five years.