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Violence-torn region hungers for peace

COTABATO CITY: Scarred by almost five decades of armed conflict, a violence-torn region in the southern Philippines is on its way to a lasting peace, attracting more investors to rebuild the languishing economy and lift its people out of poverty.

Abdulkahar Nul, a businessman who owns a commercial complex in the center of Cotabato City, the biggest city of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), looks on the sunny side of this newly-created region.

He is building a 200-room, four-story hotel to provide more comfortable accommodations for investors coming to this city with a 400,000 population.

In 2014, the Philippine government and Bangsamoro’s combatants signed a peace agreement, ending the decades-long insurgency. In 2018, then-president Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, paving the way for the 2019 creation of BARMM, which has a six-year transition period.

Speaking in his office in Cotabato City, BARMM Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim told Xinhua that the security situation in the region has “significantly improved” in the past years and a development plan to alleviate widespread poverty is in place.

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The 74-year-old chief minister said his government’s socioeconomic policies focus on consolidating security and stability, and providing a foundation for building institutions. The priorities are medical health, infrastructure, education, and social services.

“We hope to progress in these fields before the transition is completed in 2025,” he said.

However, as one of the poorest regions in the Southeast Asian country, there is a long way for BARMM to reach its ambitious achievements.

According to government statistics, over 37 percent of the region’s nearly 5 million population live below the poverty line. It has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality levels and one of the lowest life expectancies.

Mohagher Iqbal, BARMM’s minister of education, said peace and order are priority concerns for investors. He confirmed that nearly 40,000 former fighters had been decommissioned, mostly transforming into civilians while some into security enforcers.

“Everything does not come easily, but if you have the political will, you will overcome all these obstacles,” said Iqbal, who had been chief negotiator for peace agreement for 17 years, admitting the region faces challenges in charting the socioeconomic course after a prolonged conflict.

“We are in the fourth year of transition and expect to do more to deliver public services to our people,” he said.

Philippine security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said restoring peace is one of BARMM’s most significant achievements.

“The normalization guarantees that those armed groups will not disrupt the peaceful lives of the people,” Banlaoi said. “Now, they are preparing for governance rather than fighting.” In September this year, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expressed his administration’s “full and unwavering support” for the peace process in the region.

“I look forward to fulfilling your vision to realize a united, enlightened, self-governing, peaceful, just, morally upright, and progressive Bangsamoro,” Marcos told the opening session of an 80-member parliament of the 2022-2025 Bangsamoro Transition Authority.

He urged measures to be passed for the welfare of the people, particularly in agri-fishery, health care, transportation, communication, digital infrastructure, and e-governance. The Marcos administration allocated roughly 1.3 billion US dollars in budget for the Bangsamoro region in 2023.

Indeed, BARMM has a high potential for growth and development, given its strategic location, dynamic labor force and rich untapped natural resources, like natural gas, oil, solar and hydro energy, as well as minerals.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, BARMM’s economy grew by 7.5 percent in 2021, the second-fastest growth among all regions in the country. The services sector led the economic output at 38.9 percent; followed by agriculture, fishery and forestry with 36.4 percent; and industry with 24.7 percent.

Mohamad Omar Pasigan, head of the Regional Bangsamoro Board of Investments, believes the way to lasting peace is a vibrant economy, noting that the region is at the doorstep of being one of the fastest-growing economies in the Philippines.

Relatively low-cost workers, the richness of water and resources, promising tourism and employment generation are major advantages of this less-developed region, he said, stressing that BARMM can be an entry point to neighboring markets such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“The opportunity for investments is vast in this region. We provide incentives and special investment packages for investors,” said Pasigan, adding investors from the Middle East, Turkey and some East Asian countries are looking for investment opportunities despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Ramia Kasim, a barista who works in an international chain coffee shop in Cotabato City, also has a rosy outlook on the future. “The operation is normal. We are back in business,” she told Xinhua while serving the customers.

BARMM chief minister Ebrahim reaffirmed that the region’s current safe environment is conducive to doing business.

“We look forward to cooperation in developing our area and building our potential,” he said. “We welcome foreign investors and development partners.”

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