By: Edilberto C. de Jesus

As with planned caesarean procedures, we know beforehand this baby’s birthday. On Jan. 21, 2019, the people within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will determine in a plebiscite whether to welcome the birth of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR). But, as with any delivery, we cannot predict with absolute certainty the baby’s health condition at birth, or its future life prospects. It will take many years and much effort before we can proclaim the BAR a success.

The plebiscite to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is only one part of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro concluded between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end nearly 50 years of the separatist insurgency. The “normalization” process requires settling security issues, such as the decommissioning of MILF combatants. A ceremonial decommissioning of 145 combatants took place in June 2015. But by the time of BOL ratification, 30 percent of MILF forces or about 4,000 combatants should already have been decommissioned and absorbed into the government’s security forces, or provided alternative livelihood opportunities.

Some combatants may also require amnesty for actions committed during the insurgency, a process now complicated by the government handling of the Trillanes amnesty. Promoting the socioeconomic development of the BAR, especially addressing the needs of the population driven out of their homes by the fighting, constitutes another formidable normalization track. The delay in returning the refugees from the Marawi siege has added to the burden of this task, and to the even more daunting challenge that the track on Transitional Justice and Reconciliation must face—resolving the claims of victims of human rights violations.

But, first things first. A successful plebiscite to ratify the BOL is the necessary condition for completing the rest of the normalization process. Presumably, President Duterte will want to see a safe and successful delivery of the BAR. This will allow him to claim progress in delivering on his campaign promise to correct the historic injustice perpetrated against Muslim Filipinos. The MILF has also committed to the BAR. Despite its reservations, the MILF did support the BOL, whose passage in July triggered the scheduling of the plebiscite.

The BOL permits specific LGUs in Basilan, Cotabato, North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte contiguous to the ARMM territory but not subject to its jurisdiction to vote for inclusion in the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. The issue will test the capacity of the government to persuade Christian and Muslim voters on the advantages of belonging to the BAR.

As a minimum, two conditions appear necessary for both the Government and the MILF to judge the plebiscite a success. First, it should not result in a BAR smaller than the ARMM, a result that would deeply disappoint the Muslim constituency. Because this outcome is possible, the second condition becomes even more critical: The process must be transparent, fair and untainted by violence or irregularities, so that the public can accept the results as legitimate.

Although the plebiscite covers a smaller geographic area, the timeframe is tighter and the decision-making process more complicated than for the midterm national and local elections in May 2019. The pressure thus falls on the principal midwives to the BAR birthing: the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).

The Comelec bears the burden of ensuring that the questions for the plebiscite and the rules to guide the campaign for ratification that it issued on Sept. 26 reach the voters and are explained to them. The OPAPP must be able to convince the voters of the merits of inclusion in the BAR, whose features it had negotiated.

Only the registered voters of the ARMM will cast a ballot in the plebiscite. But we all have a stake in its outcome and must pay it close attention. Without a peaceful and prosperous Mindanao, the Philippines cannot realize its dream of inclusive development. And Mindanao cannot prosper if the Muslim and Christian communities in the region remain mired in identity politics and religious conflicts.

Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club.


Posted on 3 Nobember 2018 under Business Matters section of The Philippine Daily Inquirer