Four years ago, I left Mindanao and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) for a sabbatical and international engagement to gain fresh insights on my work for Mindanao peace and development. This coming July, I will be back as Associate Director of IAG.
For these years of renewal, I was in the Netherlands and Hong Kong as head of the Asia section of an international philanthropy agency that provides grants for education and peace and reconciliation projects. This work has brought me close to Asian countries affected by armed conflict: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Aceh, Timor-Leste, South Thailand, North India and Cambodia. Not only did I witness the miseries of war and conflict, I have also seen and reflected about how people and local and international organizations of goodwill employed various strategies and programs to build social cohesion and development. I bring back with me these fresh knowledge and experience in our search for new ways of resolving the Mindanao conflict.
Last week, I was in Davao for the IAG-facilitated workshop to consolidate the reform agenda in the ARMM. Observing the proceedings, I felt that I never left Mindanao because the issues that were discussed there were still the very same things we debated for years—lack of resources and autonomy, failed devolution, unfulfilled Final Peace Agreement between the GRP and the MNLF, uncertainty in the GPH-MILF talks, etc. But my fresh lens saw something good and different.
One, the top leadership in the ARMM from the governor to department secretaries and heads of offices were passionately committed to the reform agenda that they actively participated in the workshops from beginning to end. This is a marked difference in past workshops we conducted when ARMM leaders were represented by underlings who held no power to make decisions much less implement recommendations. There is undoubtedly a reform constituency especially at the highest level of leadership in the ARMM.
Second, there is a genuine desire that goes beyond personal interests among the ARMM leaders for the GPH-MILF talks to succeed. While the short-lived reform process may not achieve dramatic results (except I hope at least the cleansing of the voters’ list and entrenching a culture of transparency and accountability), the process is changing attitudes and highlighting that given the right environment, Moro leadership can work. There is a sense among current ARMM leaders that when the new autonomous political entity envisioned in the GPH-MILF talks comes to fruition, the ARMM can significantly contribute to a transition with a bureaucracy that is transparent and accountable to the people. This attitude must be supported and developed because any new political entity will not materialize in a vacuum but shall be built on present structures.
The opportunity is real for harnessing a more democratic and accountable local governance in the ARMM after the Maguindanao massacre. The formation of a new political entity that is inclusive and with enhanced powers and resources could potentially bring us closer to the elusive peace and development we long and work for.
With renewed sense of optimism, I am looking forward to make a positive difference in finding a sustainable solution to the long-standing Mindanao conflict. I must admit that when I left, I felt that the Mindanao situation is close to hopeless. But given the chance to look at our situation from the outside where I’ve seen much worse conditions, I now have a hopeful and far-sighted vision that sees the light at the end of the tunnel.