by Juan L. Mercado

“AFTER THE darkness, sunlight breaks through,” says an old regional proverb. Human sa kangitngit,  mosidlit ang adlaw. People from cities to rebel camps cited that proverb after Thursday’s signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

It was also a day of soundbytes. “I will not let peace be snatched away from my people,” said President Benigno Aquino III, who broke a deadlock in negotiations by flying to Tokyo to meet Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders. “Today, we turn to face the light,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. “We must steel ourselves for the difficult work of development ahead.”

“Tama  na,” said Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles. “Enough.” “We’re tired of evacuees and scared kids.” “A new dawn has come … books, not bullets; rewarding toil, not endless strife.”

“The MILF does not claim sole ownership of the agreement,” MILF chair Murad Ebrahim said. “This is a shared victory of the Bangsamoro and the Filipino people.”

“Beating swords into ploughshares and turning spears into pruning hooks” is an aim that has eluded previous administrations—until today’s first faint glimmerings of peace. Four decades of insurgency snuffed out the lives of over 150,000, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire.

Conflict also stifled what could have been the country’s national breadbasket. Mindanao today accounts for just a fraction over 14 percent of the nationwide production.

A “peace dividend” could boost gross domestic product growth by as much as 0.3 percentage point, Standard Chartered Plc economist Jeff Ng estimates. Silenced guns could “unleash the human capital of one of the most promising but underdeveloped areas in Southeast Asia,” Ateneo political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian wrote.

“An eye for an eye only ends up in making the world blind,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. Ending one of the region’s most protracted conflicts would be a key legacy for Mr. Aquino. And he insists on escorting his elected successor to the Luneta oath-taking in 2016. Many supporters, citing his unprecedented public support, cajole him to stay on.

Mindanao is home to most Muslims who make up about 5 percent of the population, now estimated at 96.7 million. They’re also among the poorest and lag in crucial indicators: from life expectancy to health and schooling.

“Life is the threshold at which all other hopes begin.” Overall, Filipino life expectancy “shows a stable upward trend, promising sustained progress in the future,” reports the latest issue of the Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR). People in La Union, for example, now enjoy life spans of almost 77 years.

In contrast, life spans are shorter by almost two decades in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. Other “tailenders,” like Mountain Province, Palawan and Kalinga, managed to tuck in a decade longer. This lag persists despite buffered increases in health expenditures, both public and private.

“Parents would pawn their lives for their children’s education,” a Masbate proverb says. Buhay man ipe-prenda, sa edukasyon san anak ninda. The PHDR found that among the  provinces that experienced sharp declines in the schooling index were: Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, Zamboanga del Norte, Sulu, Sultan Kudarat, Capiz and Ifugao. Lanao del Sur’s slump contrasts sharply with Lanao del Norte, which ranked among the gainers.

“The large declines [in the income index] for troubled Mindanao provinces are particularly disconcerting, considering their income levels were low to begin with,” the PHDR adds. “These are more comprehensible because of the perennial problems of conflict and human insecurity in these areas.”

Take one of the country’s most impoverished areas: the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It will be folded under the new agreement. Its per capita gross regional domestic product is 75 percent lower than that of the rest of the country.

It did have a surplus of “ghost voters.” In June 2012, the President approved a joint resolution of Congress that voided padded lists which claimed 1.77 million voters. Nitty-gritty items like padded lists of voters will challenge the Bangsamoro administrators.

Poverty in the ARMM has been whittled down 10.5 percent from the 2000 figure.  Maguindanao remains the tailender. ARMM schools generally score poorly, in comparison with those in other provinces, on standardized achievement tests.

The ARMM receives 98 centavos out of every peso from Manila. It has yet to create significant, viable sources of additional revenue.

The PHDR had computers crunch our overall impact of schooling, health and purchasing power into an overall human development index (HDI). How do the provinces measure up?

Twenty-five of 78 provinces slumped. Those showing the biggest losses (in HDIs) included Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Norte, Maguindanao, Basilan, Davao Oriental and Aklan. “Sulu did not change ranks,” only because it was previously the tailender—and still is.

Guarded optimism seems to be the reaction. Private armies in Mindanao are “well-entrenched, run by wild oligarchs,” cautioned Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. It would be the responsibility of the Bangsamoro government to tame the wild oligarchs.

“[They] can undermine the peace dividends; even hijack the agenda of the new Bangsamoro government. The annex on normalization made a lot of promises. If they fail to deliver, that will create unmet expectations and trigger more armed violence in Mindanao.”

Shakespeare’s quip for now suffices: “Both parties nobly are subdued/And neither party the loser.”


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