By Carmelito Q. Francisco and Tajallih S. Basman Correspondents
and Elijah Joseph C. Tubayan Reporter
DAVAO CITY/COTABATO CITY/MANILA — Today’s plebiscite for a new law that will expand the geographic coverage and economic authority of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) comes at a period when significant growth has been recorded in this part of the country that has otherwise been afflicted by poverty and armed conflict.
ARMM’s gross regional domestic product (GRDP) growth rate in 2017 jumped to 7.3% from 0.4% the preceding year. The blossoming of ARMM’s economy has yet to grow its contribution to national production, staying at 0.6% in 2016 and 2017, but sustaining that GRDP growth momentum is expected to create a positive ripple effect on Mindanao and the Philippines as a whole.
“What is good for Bangsamoro is good for the entire Mindanao,” said Romeo M. Montenegro, deputy executive director of the Mindanao Development Authority, the lead agency for promoting and implementing socioeconomic growth policies for the country’s southern provinces.
“In fact, if we will be able to see accelerated growth in the Bangsamoro, definitely that could trigger accelerated growth for the entire Mindanao, because many times, investors look at the autonomous region as a barometer as to whether or not there is stability for investments,” Mr. Montenegro said in an interview last week.
For the period 2012-2018, the ARMM Regional Board of Investments reported P20.07 billion in investments from 35 companies, creating more than 15,000 jobs.
The ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), contained in Republic Act No. 11054 that was enacted last year, “is going to be a game changer,” Mr. Montenegro said.
Salient points of RA 11054, which will establish the new Bangsamoro ARMM (BARMM), include an annual block grant in the first five years, subject to review after, and a 75%-25% wealth-sharing agreement in its favor with the national government.
From a national standpoint, an official of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said that securing a “yes” vote in the plebiscite is a crucial step in kick-starting a new growth engine for the Philippine economy.
“It is very important because it will unlock the major economic potential of the region,” NEDA Undersecretary for Regional Development Adoracion M. Navarro said in a phone interview on Friday.
Mr. Navarro noted that the BARMM will receive approximately P70 billion in the first fiscal year, which would cover not only basic social needs but also allow the region to catch up on infrastructure.
“I expect na mas magiging (that it will be more) vibrant, ‘yung (the) public investment program connectivity. Infrastructure, mga roads, bridges, information and communications technology, and also the social infrastructure, especially for water supply, sanitation — this region has the lowest indicator with respect to sanitation and safe water,” Ms. Navarro said.
“(T)hen we expect that the private sector will be more interested in investing. That’s our hope.”
However, there are reservations about the BOL, based largely on its implementation and the governance capacity of political leaders.
This resistance is most telling in Cotabato City.
Cotabato City — not to be confused with the provinces of South Cotabato and Cotabato (formerly and still often referred to as North Cotabato) — is the seat of the ARMM government.
The city is geographically at the heart of Maguindanao, an ARMM province, but it is administratively under the SOCCSKSARGEN (South Cotabato-Cotabato-Sultan Kudarat-Sarangani-General Santos City) region as majority of its population voted against becoming part of the ARMM, both in the first plebiscite in 1989 and the second in 2001.
Today’s vote will determine if the city will opt to remain outside the autonomous region for a third time.
Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, a vocal critique of the inclusion of Cotabato city in the new BARMM, said the main reason for her opposition is the “credibility of those who will take over.”
“Are they credible enough to bring peace, progress and prosperity in Cotabato City if they cannot control their own people now? The provisions are there; compliance is another thing. It’s all a question of credibility” Ms. Guiani-Sayadi said in an interview last Jan. 15.
The mayor said she fears that the city would lose the gains achieved so far in terms of economic growth, peace and security. “We used to be a third-class city and now we are first class. Cotabato City used to be branded as the bombing and kidnap capital in central Mindanao,” she noted. “We changed that… If not for the recent bombing…”
A blast hit a shopping mall in the city last Dec. 31, killing two people, wounding more than 30 others and prompting the Commission on Elections to put the city under its control for the election period until June 12.
Ms. Guiani-Sayadi also said that she consulted various sectors before going public with her position. “I am really campaigning for ‘no’ to inclusion because I know it is the feel of the people.”
University of Asia and the Pacific economist Bernardo M. Villegas, in an e-mail on Friday, pointed out that BOL’s success depends on leadership. “It will really completely depend on the kind of leaders they will have. The Autonomous Region of Mindanao did not work because they got the wrong leader in (Nur) Misuari,” Mr. Villegas said, referring to the founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Commissioner Omar Yasser Sema of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), on the other hand, expressed confidence of a “yes” vote in Cotabato City, where President Rodrigo R. Duterte himself campaigned last Friday in a last-ditch call for support. “As a local and as a resident of Cotabato, I believe that demography-wise and sentiment-wise the people of the city will vote for its inclusion in the new BARMM,” said Mr. Sema, son Muslimin Sema, a former Cotabato City mayor and previous chairman of the biggest faction of the MNLF. “Those who waged the armed struggle in the 1970s are residents of Cotabato… Historically Cotabato City is the heart of the Bangsamoro.”
Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, former chairperson of the government panel that negotiated the peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that paved the way for the BOL, said Cotabato’s growth is tied to the peace process. “Cotabato City developed fast in the last 10 years alongside the progress in the peace process. Note that the last kidnapping incident of a business person was solved with the security cooperation of the MILF. Under a Bangsamoro government, it will remain a hub. If it opts out of the Bangsamoro, the autonomous region can relocate its capital, build a new airport and Cotabato City will lose out,” she said.
It must be noted that in the May 13 mid-term elections, Ms. Guiani-Sayadi is running for reelection where she is up against Maguindanao 1st District Rep. Bai Sandra Sema, wife of Muslimin Sema.
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a nonresident research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, said that although replacing traditional political families in the region will be “impossible to achieve,” the parliamentary form for the BARMM government will give more representation for the marginalized, including sectoral organizations, former combatants and ethnic groups. “Ostensibly, the new governance structure offered by the BOL presents a better chance at addressing the long-standing socioeconomic inequality plaguing the region,” Mr. Yusingco said in an e-mail.
However, he added, the technical capacity gap of local leaders in managing an autonomous region remains a challenge. Knowledge gaps like those on parliamentary procedures, inter-agency relations and management, values-based leadership, fiscal policy formulation and sustainable development management need to be bridged within short time frame.
“A case of ‘business as usual’ will bring disastrous results to the BARMM. Bangsamoro politicians and voters alike must embrace and understand their respective responsibilities in the new regional governance system. So education and training for the needed changes is absolutely necessary,” he added.
NEDA acknowledges this, and has started to map-out solutions.
“The would-be technocrats here needs to absorb the additional resources to implement the projects. So they will really need help in terms of capacity building. First is public financial management… accountability and transparency,” Ms. Navarro said.
“Right now, nag uumpisa na ‘yung different government agencies and ODA (official development assistance) partners (have begun) in analyzing and assessing what kind of assistance in capacity-building they will give. Once the Bangsamoro Transition Authority is already there, then we implement na all kinds of capacity building. It will prepare the leaders of the Bangsamoro region, the development planners, and the implementers,” she said.
The BTA, as provided under the law, will be an 80-member multi-sectoral team that will handle the transition from the current ARMM government to the new BARMM set-up.
Mr. Villegas said it is crucial to have local managers who will competently tap the region’s rich natural resources. “They have a lot of resources, especially in agriculture. We will need leaders who will focus on improving agricultural productivity through the construction of farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities. Those leaders must also be able to expand the experience of bananas and pineapples to a larger number of high-value crops like coffee, cacao, palm oil, rubber, and other fruit trees,” he said.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia, for his part, said the BOL’s success in laying down peace and order first would be the crucial factor in ensuring that the new law would eventually translate to economic development. “If a ‘yes’ vote results in stability and peace, it’ll be good for the economy of the region and the country,” Mr. Pernia said via text message on Friday.
Mr. Yusingco said that, by-and-large, there is strong support for the BOL.
“I believe the entire country is rallying behind this landmark law because many are hoping that this new shot at regional autonomy will be successful this time around. Indeed, it is an integral component of a broader state effort to combat terrorism and violent extremism. This truly gives credence to the assertion that the success of the BOL, both in the plebiscite and its implementation, is in the best interest of the entire nation.”