Teresa Jopson looks at what impact the Philippines presidential election will have on a troubled province wracked by insurgency and violence for four decades.
Stakes are high in the upcoming 9 May elections in the Philippines.
Amid the extreme poverty, severe drought, heavy militarisation, a hanging Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), and renewed vigour of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf, Mindanao in southern Philippines has the most at stake.
Resource-rich Mindanao has 11 of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines, and the poorest region, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The harshest drought in decades has pushed peasants to slaughter their cattle for food and abandon dried rice fields. On 1 April, police fired upon farmers in Kidapawan, who demanded food aid promised to them earlier in the year. Three were killed, scores injured, and 77 were detained for direct assault, including elderly and pregnant women.
A similar roadblock protest was staged in South Cotabato on 25 April, with protesters demanding access to the government’s calamity funds. Any incompetent government can rain bullets between hungry farmers and food aid marked for them. What farmers want to know though, is will they continue to starve in the next administration?
Mindanao has been a stage for insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns for over four decades. Over 120,000 were killed in wars between the government and the Muslim indigenous peoples from 1969-1990. Anthropologist Jowel Canuday has shown how displacement has been normalised in the government’s pursuit of rebels. An estimated 3.5 million people were displaced in Mindanao in the last 15 years.
While the current administration is in ongoing peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), other armed groups are not shaking hands with the government. Last month, Abu Sayyaf killed 18 soldiers and decapitated a Canadian miner they kidnapped for ransom. Those living in evacuation centers are interested in how the incoming administration plans to quell the conflict in Mindanao.
This election is a big deal. Much power is assigned to the President of the Philippines, who can veto Congress, appoint the Chief Justice, and supervise local government units. Presidential elections thus reinforce a persisting ‘big man’ syndrome.
Big man elections reconfigure the networks that benefit from the highest public office. They distinguish the programs that get priority from the ones shelved for the next six years. For instance, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration (2001-2010) threw out gains from the peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Joseph Estrada administration (1998-2001). But, Macapagal-Arroyo resumed negotiations with the MILF aborted by Estrada.
While many administrations abandon achievements by their predecessors because of personal or party rivalries, there are exceptions. Current President Benigno Simeon Aquino III continued negotiations with the MILF that had experienced both momentum and setbacks during the Macapagal-Arroyo regime. From this, Aquino reaped praise in the signing of the celebrated Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) fulfills the agreements between the government and the MILF on economic and governance issues by building a robust Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in place of the ARMM. The BBL’s survival and final form are to be determined by the Philippine Congress. Watering down the bill, however, may make the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region indistinguishable from the ARMM, which Aquino called a “failed experiment”. Poised to be enacted in 2015, the BBL has been held hostage in Congress as the Aquino administration runs out of time.
Based on the 24 April debate among five Presidential candidates on their plan for Mindanao, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Dutuerte and Secretary Mar Roxas explicitly said that they will pass the BBL, while Senator Grace Poe promised to pursue “peace talks with all sides”. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago talked about dismantling private armies and strengthening customary law through the observance of Sharia, while Vice President Jejomar Binay underscored poverty as the root cause of conflict in Mindanao.
What form could the BBL take under the next administration? Defensor-Santiago seemed to be talking only peace, while Binay seemed to be talking only development in Mindanao. Dutuerte, Poe, and Roxas all alluded to both peace and development in the area. Roxas, the Liberal Party candidate backed by Aquino, vows to continue Aquino’s support for the BBL.
For many, Roxas means the status quo, and that may not be a good thing for Mindanao. Dutuerte, the only candidate from Mindanao, expressed that historical injustice against the Muslim indigenous peoples must be corrected and gave unequivocal support for the BBL. Whether wittingly alluding to initial criticisms of the BBL or not, Poe strikingly suggests that a more gender-aware and inclusive talks could be in place. Poe was also the lone candidate who talked about addressing the terrorist threat.
The election outcomes are crucial to Mindanao. Decades of neglect, violence and impunity in Mindanao have widened inequality in the country, spurring a loathing for imperial Manila. To a certain extent, the campaign period forced both candidates and voters to consider the plight of the poorest and most marginalised in the Philippines. The poor, who has the most at stake, think and talk back with their votes.
Whether politicians can make good on their promises, and voters are willing to hold them accountable beyond elections, is another matter. Amidst the Comelec security breach and the recent peso devaluation, those of us voting on 9 May may ask, what difference does our vote make to farmers and the internally displaced in Mindanao?
Teresa Jopson is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Her work focuses on internal displacement, shifting masculinities and comprehensive peace in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.