IAG Executive Director Atty. Benedicto Bacani delivered this keynote speech during the 4th Mindanao Peace Studies Conference on November 21, 2018 at the Fr. Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City


Poverty incidence in Mindanao is at 40%, the highest among the three islands with four out of the top 5 poorest regions in the Philippines in Mindanao. Mindanao has one third of the Philippines poor but only a quarter of the country’s population. Despite Mindanao having the highest poverty incidence, Mindanao has received only 14.5% share of the national budget in the past five years. This budget is against the backdrop where Mindanao contributes 15% of GDP and 40% of the country’s agricultural production.


Kusog Mindanaw, an annual multi-stakeholders forum has been in the forefont of the 30-30-30 advocacy: Since Mindanao has 30% percent of the country’s population then it is entitled to at least 30% share of the national budget; and 30% of positions in all organs of departments, judiciary, constitutional commissions and government owned and/or controlled corporations and institutions.


Mindanao poverty as an issue of greater budget and share in national offices is only one dimension of the complex issue of poverty. Poverty is symptomatic and only one of the products of a greater problem which is injustice.  Historical injustice is now commonly regarded as the underlying root of the Mindanao conflict and poverty. Injustice is in various forms: social, political, economic, cultural and environmental.

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World Bank (2005), Joint Needs Assessment for Reconstruction and Development of Conflict-Affected Areas in Mindanao, World Bank Manila Office.


In the World Bank study, injustice in Mindanao has many faces:  social exclusion and marginalization, land and natural resources dispossession, ineffective/imposed institutions of governance, law enforcement and service delivery, extreme poverty, deprivation of basic amenities and perceived suppression of Islamic practices, traditional customs and indigenous institutions (and the communist insurgency). There are socio-economic and political factors that fuel and perpetuate injustice such as competition for scarce resources, local election disputes, proliferation of armed groups/militarization, intertribal and inter-ethnic conflict, clan war and unimplemented peace agreements with Moro fronts. I will now add rise of extremism and intolerance in all forms in this list.


In the literature,  injustice is  form of structural violence that makes the quest for peace elusive and resolution of societal conflicts seemed intractable.


How do we address injustice as the root cause of poverty and lack of peace in Mindanao? In the context of Mindanao, we hear of addressing historical injustice as key to Mindanao peace.  The peace process with the Moro fronts-MNLF-MILF has raised national consciousness on the history of Mindanao and the Moro people and the loss of sovereignty, land and identity due to colonization.  Public laws have discriminated against the Moro people.


In peace agreements with the Moro fronts, autonomy has been agreed upon as the means to recognize and correct the historical injustice committed against the Moro people.  Aside from this political system that will allow the Moro people to evolve their own system of governance according to their identity, culture and way of life, there is the process of normalization  and transitional justice in that will remember, acknowledge and provide a system of accountability and reparation for the injustice committed to the Moro people. Learning from the peace process with the MNLF and peace processes elsewhere, the MILF peace process is indeed more comprehensive in recognizing the root causes and the various and contemporary modes of addressing them.


It is significant to note that there is a clear attempt to introduce political reforms in the envisioned Bangsamoro autonomous region by the adoption of a regional parliamentary system that will broaden public participation in politics and governance.  According to the BOL, 50% of the members of the regional parliament shall be elected thru proportional representation, 40% will be district representatives and 10% are reserved seats where (2) reserved seats each for non-Moro indigenous peoples and settler communities, 1 seat for Women, youth, traditional leaders, and the Ulama.


Already, this provision that will promote more public participation in governance is now under attack with the filing of a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of a parliamentary system in the Bangsamoro while the country is under a presidential system. We monitor opposition to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law by leaders and groups whose political and economic interests will be potentially diminished by these political reforms. At the other end of the spectrum, we see growing skepticism on the political and administrative capacity and commitment of the MILF to good governance as leading the 3-year transition from the ARMM to the new Bangsamoro autonomous region. There are fears about maintaining unity in the Bangsamoro given the political, clans and ethnic divisions and the resurgence of more virulent conflicts for those who will feel excluded in this peace process. Finally, there is growing anxiety over government’s capacity to deliver on the much needed resources for meaningful transition and normalization process owing to weak and inefficient bureaucracy and processes.


This brings me to my point: “It is not enough to acknowledge that injustice in history has been committed.  Building social justice is the way to building stable peace.” Social justice abounds when benefits and burdens are divided fairly among members of the community (Distributive justice as per Aristotle).


Structural violence that breeds conflicts and unpeace can only be addressed in an environment where the work for social justice is thriving and social justice is being pursued at all costs. Social justice is ending all forms of structural violence. It is underpinned by equality, primacy of the dignity of peoples and human rights for all.


Is there an environment, political, legal and social, in the Philippines where the work for social justice is thriving? We pride ourselves as a democratic and republican country.  Our constitution in unequivocal terms puts social justice as a national vision.  We have the most progressive bill of rights in our constitution. Yet, why are our communities poor while few favored families and groups reap the country’s growing economy? Why is justice and the rule of  elusive and almost unreachable to the poor while treated as commodity that can be bought and manipulated by the influential few? Why is it that human rights are subordinated to national security and law enforcement as if they are mutually exclusive?


These are questions that we have been asking ourselves for the longest time. We hoped that after the EDSA revolution, our trajectory towards attaining a high degree of social justice will be clear, certain and sustained. Yes, our economy has grown. Yes, we have freedoms that are envied by others. Yet, there remains no equal opportunities for all Filipinos to better their lives. Not few look at EDSA as a battle between political families and dynasties for control of the Philippines. People hoped change after the fall of the dictatorship. There was positive change indeed but only for the favored few. The majority remained poor and marginalized from the existing political and legal system that they hoped can take them out of poverty.


The election of President Duterte who ran under the platform of change and iron-fisted law enforcement, showed that many Filipinos are desirous of radical change.  They saw in President Duterte a leader who is one with the poor, speaks their language and empathizes with them.  For the plurality of voters in the last national elections, if there is someone who can instill fear in the oligarchs, feudal lords and the ruling class in the Philippines,  it is President Duterte.


The brand of governance of President Duterte is not unique.  Globally, there is this growing trend of elected leaders  who represent or who present themselves as candidates under a platform that is  anti-establishment, nationalist and protectionist, anti-western liberal democracy, populists and strong against crime:  Time magazine described them as the “strong men”: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newly elected right-wing President of Brazil who does not hide his admiration of dictators, Jair Bolsonaro. is now in this list. As an anti-establishment and populist leader, President Donald Trump of the United States is in this club.


The rise of “strong men” including our own President Duterte is a pushback to international global order that is identified with western liberal democracies, of globalization that bred more inequities in global economy and development and to global organizations such as the United Nations and the values that they represent: human rights, democracy, international conventions, and diplomacy. These are values that the Philippines has embraced after the fall of the dictatorship and it looks like for President Duterte, these values that underpinned public policies in the country have not solved the deep-seated problems that ail this country: crime, poverty and lack of justice. If radical change has to happen, a new playbook has to be played.


This playbook has been the subject of scrutiny and debate in and out of the Philippines. Depending on which side of the political fence one is, the war on drugs is brutal, anti-poor and inhuman for some and necessary and unavoidable to protect young Filipinos for others.  The principle that the state has to protect human rights as an international obligation is challenged as giving criminals free passes to commit crime against victims who have greater claim to human rights.  In this playbook, the military and police are the “bastoneros” that will instill discipline in and out of government. “Militarization” is taking on a new meaning under this administration—those who have been in the military and police force are assumed to be disciplined and efficient and can get things done as government bureaucrats. In foreign relations, the press release is that the Philippines adopt an independent foreign policy but clearly the official actions are drifting away from western liberal democratic countries and closer to China and Russia. Charter change particularly around shifting the country’s unitary system to federal system as a way to empower regions and local governments is an agenda in this playbook.


The peace process with the MILF under the Duterte administration has progressed with the passage of the BOL.  In a big way, the policy of President Duterte for the implementation of peace agreements in step with legal and constitutional reforms has paved the way for compromises on the BOL that led to its passage in Congress. The peace process with the NDF-CPP-NPA is in now in limbo. 


There are still more that we can add in the list of Duterte playbook that horrify critics and praised in high heavens by Duterte supporters. The main battleground for winning adherents or oppositors to this playbook is in social media--- while ironically lauded as democratizing information has in not few instances misused as weapons to peddle lies and stifle dissent.


Is social justice reachable under President Duterte? Will this administration able to  dismantle the entrenched  structural violence in our political and economic system that hit the poor most? Will there be genuine political reforms under his watch? Is the path we are taking lead us to just and sustainable peace?


I must confess that I have mixed feelings and reviews. I had high hopes when federalism was made the centerpiece of the President’s constitutional reform agenda.  Federalism is a homegrown Mindanao agenda which is shared even by Moro fronts as a solution to the Mindanao conflict. Under a federal Philippines, social justice can potentially flourish as regions outside Metro Manila can get a more equitable share of the country’s resources.  Government is also brought closer to the people who can demand accountability from leaders.   Yet, we do not see the President’s leadership in steering the federalism discourse to an end that majority Filipinos can support. Instead, because of the President’s lack of leadership on the issue, this initiative is being hijacked by pseudo-federalist groups with vested interests.


To address structural violence, the response must be structural which is a mix of political, legal and constitutional reforms.  Power relations that allow a privileged few to control resources and political powers can only be dismantled thru sustained reforms. Our dysfunctional and slow justice system has to be reformed.  Electoral reforms must be implemented to give equal opportunities to everyone not only the moneyed few to take on an elected public office.


We are yet to see structural reforms under the current dispensation.  In the war against drugs, we see that due process and rule of law take a backseat in favor of swift and dramatic results. Structural reforms to make law enforcement effective as a deterrent to crime is not there yet.


Finally, human rights is the foundation of social justice.  If we want to achieve social justice, we need to recognize and respect more not less human rights. For human rights to deter and not misused to the destruction of innocent lives, the only way is to observe not contravene due process. Efficient and effective policing, prosecution and conviction is the key to address the problems of drugs and criminality.


We may be getting desperate but should the military and police be always and preferred “go to guy” for everything that needs to be fixed in this country? It looks though that the lines between military, police and civilian functions are getting blurred.  One of the supposedly good things we are hearing about martial law in Mindanao is that it has improved governance especially in Moro areas. Local political leaders are accountable to their constituents and governing out of fear of the military promotes a culture of violence not peace.


Let me summarize my main points:


First, in the context of Mindanao, sustainable peace does not only require acknowledging historical injustice but most critically, promoting social justice.  We have to reform our politics and constitutional and legal framework, in order to provide equal opportunities and burdens to people especially the poor. The shift to a federal system, when done right in process and substance, can potentially bring about these needed reforms.


Second, the primacy of the dignity of persons and human rights must be observed for genuine social justice to be achieved.


Third, we need to reform our political and justice institutions.  Institution-building is the antidote to structural violence. 


Fourth, non-violent and democratic process may be slow, frustrating and incremental yet this is the only way by which genuine peace and social justice can be achieved.  


As peace builders, peace scholars and researchers, we need to be critical of the policy choices our leaders make.  These policy choices are underpinned by values that must as well be critically examined.  There are policy choices that this current administration that we may not agree on but it does not mean other administrations have done better.  People seemed  desperate for change that they are even willing to barter their freedoms and rights for some sense of security.  We cannot be partisan because if we do so, we stop listening.  We must have the courage to facilitate dialogues, especially political dialogues on how best we can build institutions that will promote social justice. Finally, we must have the perseverance to assess and examine the dynamics of peace and conflict in your own context. If we are the first to give up on non-violent and democratic process for peace, we will be taking away any hope in our communities.