The top official of the Bangsamoro autonomous region in the southern Philippines says the normalization process to pave the way for elections will take until 2025, arguing that many important goals in an agreed peace plan are yet to be realized.
Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, the chief minister, told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview that during peace negotiations before the popular referendum of 2019, “a transition period of six years was demanded.”
“Now, after more than a year in office, we see that time until 2022 will not be enough in implementing the provisions of the agreement,” he said.
In 2018, a decades-long insurgency by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led to peace negotiations with the Philippine government, and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was formed after the signing of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
The regional government is run by Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) under Ebrahim.
“The main reason for requesting the extension of the BTA is because we see that there is no time to fully implement the agreed political and normalization tracks provided by the government of Philippines, MILF Comprehensive Agreement and BOL, including the decommissioning of combatants,” said the chief minister.
Jan. 21 is celebrated as the foundation day of BARMM, the day when the plebiscite was held in 2019, which officially ratified the Bangsamoro Basic Law and provided for the establishment of the BARMM, said Ebrahim.
Last year, the autonomous government passed the Bangsamoro Administrative Code and declared Feb. 21 as a non-working holiday.
After the negotiations, it was decided that the transition period for the regional government under Ebrahim would be three years ending in 2022.
“But during the peace agreement negotiations, we had demanded a six-year period,” said the chief minister, explaining the need to successfully achieve the targets before elections are held.
‘Time needed for achieving targets of normalization’
Under the agreement, there are two tracks for the peace process: the political track, which is the setting up of the autonomous government, and the normalization process, which relates to the decommissioning of former combatants.
“We have implemented 60% of the political track, and we need to implement 40% more of the work,” he said.
As of now, Ebrahim said, the local government, as well as the parliament are functioning.
There are 15 ministries of the BARMM and 80 members of parliament, of whom 41 are nominated by MILF.
The parliament has so far passed at least 13 bills, and the Bangsamoro development plan for 2021, which is around $1.5 billion.
However, he added that only 30% of the normalization process has been achieved.
The process includes the decommissioning process of former MILF combatants, the disbanding of private armies, addressing the issue of firearms and the establishment of a police force for the Bangsamoro region besides the integration of qualified members of the MILF in the police and Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Ebrahim added that a transitional justice agency of the government was also yet to be formed. “We have barely started the decommissioning process.”
“Assessing all this, we see that the three-year period which will end by 2022 will not be really enough to complete the provisions of the [peace] agreement, and this is the main reason that we requested [an extension of the transition period].”
He said a government delegation led by himself discussed the matter with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“He agreed that there is really a need to extend the transition because it is very short to implement the agreement,” said Ebrahim.
“But the president said we will have to work with the legislative branch [of the Philippine government] on the extension of the transition period from 2022 to 2025,” he added.
The extension of the transition period will mean Bangsamoro’s first parliamentary elections will be held around 2025.
Ebrahim said five bills have been submitted in the Philippine House of Representatives or lower house of Congress and two separate bills have been submitted in the Senate, or upper house.
“All of the bills seek an extension of Bangsamoro Transition Authority from 2022 to 2025. We hope by October that we will have completed the extension process,” he said.
“Once extended, it will be dependent on the leadership of BARMM and the Philippine president whether we will have to continue with all the existing members of parliament or we can also replace them,” he added.
13,500 combatants decommissioned
The chief minister said that only 13,500 former combatants have been decommissioned so far under the normalization track.
“We have started decommissioning the Bangsamoro Islamic armed forces. This is an ongoing process, and the target is 40,000 combatants. There are many factors that have not been put in place,” he said, adding 28,000 others will be decommissioned in the second and third phases.
Under the agreement, the Philippine government will extend assistance to this decommissioning process so that the former combatants become “productive members of the community.”
“The agreed amount is 1 million Philippine pesos [$20,621] to each combatant, which ranges from cash assistance to various social services and social-economic packages,” said Ebrahim.
“The over 13,000 decommissioned are yet to receive the [full] economic package; they have only received 100,000 pesos [$2,063] cash,” he said.
The other benefits include housing, training, livelihood and skills programs and scholarships for their children.
He said the firearms and weapons of the former combatants have been deposited with a decommissioning body guarded by joint forces of the MILF and Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“When all weapons are intact, then we will decide what to do with them,” he added.
Ebrahim said his government was “not able to implement our own projects, as our budget was leftover from a past administration.”
The BARMM succeeded the government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which ruled the region.
“We started our programs after an interim development program was approved in 2020,” he said, adding the focus of the government is on education, medical and health facilities and services as well as social services, followed by the development of strategic infrastructure.
He said since the Bangsamoro Code was promulgated, the government is “phasing out old officials.”
“We are hiring a new bureaucracy, for which we opened an online job portal where we initially offered more than 4,000 jobs, for which we received more than 300,000 applications,” he noted.
He said 70% of the hiring process has been completed.
“We have set up a vibrant bureaucracy and offered very comprehensive services to people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
He said COVID-19 had affected the people of the region despite the Bangsamoro region being “among the lowest in terms of victims of the pandemic.”
Ebrahim said the pandemic turned out to be an opportunity during which the regional government “improved health facilities, medical equipment, upgraded the hospitals and built isolation facilities.”
“Before the pandemic, we did not have any hospital capable of laboratory testing. We immediately upgraded hospitals so they can have testing facilities for COVID-19,” he added.
“In each of the five provinces and two cities, we were able to upgrade the hospitals. Now at least five of these hospitals are capable of COVID-19 testing,” he said.
The BARMM has also built around 15 isolation facilities all over the region.
“Transformation from a revolutionary group to governance is the first challenge we face; many of us have never been in government. So we have to adopt to the situation — how to learn and how to run a government,” he said.
‘Thankful to international community, especially Turkey’
Ebrahim said the people of the Bangsamoro region “are thankful to the international community. Most of them are still on board the peace process and continuing their assistance to the Bangsamoro government.”
The international partners include Turkey, Japan, the EU and other developmental aid agencies.
“They are implementing projects and assisting our human resource capacities,” he said.
“Turkey is continuing [assistance] through its agencies and NGOs like IHH and TIKA, which are very active and helping us,” said Ebrahim.
“We would like to extend our gratitude to the government and people of Turkey for their continued support to the struggle of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination. Since the very start, Turkey has been supporting [us] and has been a member of the peace process,” he said.
Turkey is a member of several contact groups on Bangsamoro including one which consists of the UK, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Turkey.
Turkey also sits on the Independent Decommissioning Body which oversees the normalization process.
In addition, Ankara is also a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team.
“In the implementation of all the agreements, Turkey has played an important role,” said Ebrahim.
Ebrahim said many Turkish universities have admitted students from Bangsamoro, granting them scholarships to study.