What European envoys think about Bangsamoro’s prospects
A month after the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), ten representatives of the European Union’s member states trooped to Cotabato City and Maguindanao to see first-hand the situation on the ground.
Ambassadors Guy Ledoux of the European Union, Thomas Ossowski of Germany, Massimo Roscigno of Italy, Josef Muellner of Austria, and Roland Van Remoortele of Belgium; Chargé d’Affaires Trevor Lewis (British Embassy) and Mihai Sion (Romanian Embassy); deputy ambassadors Hugues-Antoine Suin (France) and Jan Vytopil (Czech Republic), and Senior Program Manager of General of Spanish Cooperation in the Philippines Carlos Gallego met with stakeholders of the Bangsamoro peace accord on April 25 to 26.
The CAB is the final peace accord between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after more than four decades of conflict and years of negotiations. It requires the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will create the Bangsamoro political entity.
INQUIRER.net accompanied the diplomats as they spoke with the officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the central committee of the MILF, and members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC). After visiting EU-funded projects in Maguindanao, the five ambassadors shared with us their thoughts on the prospects of peace and progress in the Bangsamoro region.
Below is a compilation of their answers in separate interviews:
Q: Is this your first time in Mindanao?
Ledoux (EU): No, it’s not.
Ossowski (Germany): Yes. It is my very first time.
Roscigno (Italy): I’ve been in Mindanao many years ago when I was posted here as a young diplomat but I didn’t come to this part in Mindanao. This is my first time in Cotabato.
Muellner (Austria): Yes, the very first time.
Remoortele (Belgium): I’ve been here 15 years ago. I’ve been here many, many times, all over Mindanao, practically once a month. I was all over the place because then as you remember, in 1996, [the Philippine government] had the peace agreement with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). And my government decided in 1997 to help (in promoting peace).
Q: [For those who visited for the first time] What can you say about the people of Mindanao?
Muellner: To be honest, I’ve heard a lot about this but I’ve never had direct contact with these people on the ground. Of course [I was at] the signing ceremony at the Malacañang Palace but this one is my first contact with actors in the peace process. It is very interesting, fascinating for me to talk with them directly. And I was always positive that the peace process would be a success one day.
Ossowski: The Mindanao people are very hospitable. I’m really impressed by the future of the island. Of course there’s a lot of underdevelopment but I believe that with the peace process, development will set in and eventually help the people develop their communities, develop their infrastructure because I think there’s a lot of potential in this island.
Q: [For those who have been to the region] How would you compare the situation in Mindanao then and now (that there’s a new peace agreement)?
Ledoux: I can say that there is much more optimism. You see that we don’t have very strong escorts like we had in the past. We just talked to the community and they said themselves the level of security has improved significantly. And of course this is an environment where economic activity can [pick up]. It’s easier for the community to go out to their farm, bring their product here and increase their income in as peaceful environment. So everybody’s more optimistic.
Remoortele: I remember traveling 15 years ago surrounded by bodyguards and armored cars, and armored personnel carriers and marines and whatever. Now, you know apart from the little van (we had) with a few military this afternoon, it was very peaceful. You’ve come a long way already.
Q: Why are European countries interested in the situation in Mindanao?
Roscigno: When 25 years ago I was called as a young diplomat here, Mindanao was already in our interest…Well each country has its own history of approaching the ODA (Official Development Assistance) and assistance to the Philippines. I can speak as far as our concern to Italy but the common view is that countries from the industrialized countries, especially old industrialized countries like ours, have in their vision that we need to extend a hand to developing countries (and) also to seize opportunity for us in this part of the world.
Asia is a booming (region); it is the most dynamic area of the world for several years already. Of course we want to entertain economic, commercial relations with Asia. But the ODA part, the assistance part is…done with a spirit of friendship.
Q: What do you think are the prospects of the peace process in the region?
Roscigno: Well I think that it’s really important to come and see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears what’s happening because it’s not the same as reading reports or reading on the press.
I am coming back to Manila tomorrow with a clearer view and I would say more optimism from what I’ve seen. I think that it’s a good spirit and very well intentioned people here are working for a successful peace process. And I think this province really deserves the opportunity to boom because Mindanao has so much potential that it can be really an economic powerhouse for the Philippines. So I think all the right tools are in place for a positive outcome. Let’s hope that it will not be spoiled by minority groups.
Remoortele: Because the situation has improved I think that is one of the reasons why it is now possible to have this comprehensive peace agreement. Because I think at the end of the day people are tired of conflict, people are tired of being in this situation, people want change. And I think now we’ve reached that breaking point. You know everybody wants to have peace and want to develop themselves, instead of being left to their own devices, like unfortunately the case in the past…You can see that there is this drive now to, for once and for all, finish this and get genuine peace. And then I was telling one of the business people just now, the previous meeting we had, at one point in time Mindanao was the bread basket of the whole of the Philippines…Mindanao can develop itself Mindanao can be an engine of growth for the Philippines. So that’s why I think this agreement, this Bangsamoro peace agreement is very important. And probably heralds a new future for the Philippines.
Q: What about the threats?
Ledoux: Well I guess you have two types of threats. You have the threat here in Mindanao itself, people who do not understand whether the substance of the peace process or who are afraid that they will not win something out of that. Then there is the political situation in Manila because the basic law needs to be approved by the Congress and the Senate. And there also is challenging to convince the political leaders in Manila to approve this agreement.
Muellner: We just heard yesterday from the chairman of the MILF (saying that) even within his own organization there are dissenting and critical voices towards the peace process…There is a lot of scepticism. They need a lot of leadership both the government side and the MILF side to include the people outside the mainstream.
Remoortele: There are still threats of course. When you have a peace agreement, you raise the expectations of people and many times people are disappointed because they think that by signing a peace agreement the situation will automatically improve. It doesn’t work that way. So that is one sort of pitfall that is on the horizon.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing that the government and the parties involved in the peace process need to do to really have peace and economic progress in Mindanao?
Ledoux: I think the Philippine government and the MILF [have] both made enormous effort and concession to each other to reach this agreement. So I think this is already an enormous achievement. We see the Philippine government, we have seen the ARMM authority yesterday, who is providing substantial amount of money for improvement of the infrastructure, building roads and port and other infrastructure here in Mindanao. So I think the government is doing everything that is needed to build a conducive environment for peace.
Muellner: Of course the most important, before they can start with economic development, is to have peace and security on the ground. This is, in my view, the most urgent need. If you have security and peace then you can build trust, with trust you can build economic development and build the livelihood of people and to promote progress and economic development.
Ossowski: The most important thing is the finalization of the basic law and afterwards the implementation of it. And we all know there will still be complications waiting for us but if everyone is determined, has strong will, (and) all sides involved, [then] I’m sure the historic project for peace in Mindanao and peace in Bangsamoro can really succeed.
Roscigno: Well overall I would say I think the government of the Philippines should keep the route [it has] taken so far, to support the President and the others and everybody else. To support the peace process and keep looking at the vision that they have so far, not change his vision because otherwise there is a risk of going backwards and starting all over again. So it is very important I think, if I were to advise the government, to keep the steady course, be open-minded, be understanding. Of course you have to keep some principles…I am thinking of the constitution. But all efforts should be exerted so that the process is not derailed.
Remoortele: As Ambassador Ledoux, said the road is still long. We’re not there yet. (But) at least now there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But it is important that everybody, not just foreign donors, but also locally, people come together and make it work. And (for) organized communities to lift themselves up, to do things together and not just depend on outside help.
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