MINDANAO: The intense determination to ensure that all milestones in attaining the elusive hope for lasting peace in Mindano is not derailed was evident.
Rocked by the biggest threat the country had seen in recent history, the hundreds of thousands of Moros, led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) group, had spared no expense in dousing any spark that would extinguish any chance for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to see the light of day.
Playing the leading role for the predominantly Muslim Mindanao to secure the goal for an autonomous Bangsamoro, these men, many of whom were once fearless, armed fighters who stood up against decades-long injustices, which Manila has since recognised, were at the forefront of sorts in the war.
The Battle for Marawi, which the world had been watching closely, was the longest campaign the Philippines had had to fight yet.
More than five months after the Maute group, which teamed up with the Islamic State, launched their attack in Marawi City, the capital of the Lanao del Sur province, the realisation is clear for those who have shed immense blood, sweat and tears and devoted their lives for the Bangsamoro cause — both the the Philippine government and MILF — that the threat is real.
Further delays in passing the BBL may permanently seal that small window for any hopes of peace to take root and thrive in volatile Mindanao.
The Philippine government had conceded that there are 20 IS cells in the country, comprising small insurgent groups aligning themselves to the global terror group, which had identified Mindanao as the most fertile ground in the region to spread their ideology.
MILF had openly, as partners of the Philippine government, condemned the Marawi siege led by the Maute brothers who had aligned themselves with Isnilon Hapilon, the IS leader for Southeast Asia, and called on the Bangsamoro to reject the heavily-armed group.
At the forefront of the “peace corridor” the MILF spearheads with the implementing panels of the government, these men, who ensured the safety of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the displaced, had front-row seats in the inner workings and strengths of these insurgents bent of turning Mindanao, starting with Marawi, into an IS caliphate.
“We knew of young people who, after just a week of being trapped inside Marawi City with the rebels, chose to ignore rescue efforts. They picked up arms instead and decided that there was nothing to lose by joining the fight,” said a member of a non-governmental organisation, sanctioned to take part in the highly-risky rescue missions in the besieged city.
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong, a Marawi native who had been helping with relief efforts, sees only one way to prevent this: “Give that hope to the Moros to cling on to.
“People, especially the young, are disappointed with the system, injustices and inequality.
“Time is of the essence. We need to be bold enough to explore other means to address the root causes of the problem.
“This generation is fed up that they no longer have hope in negotiations… then the IS came along, proposing a completely different hope,” he told the New Straits Times.
He cautioned that convincing the current generation who are aggrieved and anxious, was critical in stemming the spread of the IS threat in Mindanao.
“The young don’t want to inherit the problem anymore, so they are taking up the solution they think they have.
“The IS has an easy audience... our young are beginning to think, ‘Well, maybe if you can separate us from the Philippines and set up a caliphate here, maybe it’ll be good for us, who knows’.
“Plus, they may already be fed up with too much negotiations and non-settlements…
“They are thinking that IS could be the solution for them,” he said, adding that this notion must be erased from the minds of the youth in the region.
Irene Santiago, chair of the government’s implementing panel for the Bangsamoro Peace Accords, shares the worry.
She concurred that the best way to fight extremism would be to pass the BBL.
Pointing out the correlation between the rise of insurgent groups in the region and the feeling of despair of those lured in by the groups, she said it was crucial, now more than ever, to give the Bangsamoro the right to self-determination.
“The Mautes, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the rest of its kind are saying, ‘Look at the way we are being treated... We can’t even get what they agreed to give us’. So, they feel like there is nothing left to hope for... the best way to rein in the situation is to pass BBL.
“Give the Bangsa-moro their government, their right to self-govern,’’ Irene told the NST during a sit-down in Manila.
The Bangsamoro Transition Commission approved the final draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law on July 17 and the final BBL draft had already been submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte.
The way forward for this, for the promise of peace in the region, now lies in the hands of the Philippine Senate and Congress.
The world watches with the highest of hope.