IT will be a very eventful 2019 for the Bangsamoro community on the Philippine island of Mindanao.
After decades of painstaking negotiations, broken promises, false dawns and intermittent fighting and much bloodletting, the community gets to finally vote later this month to approve, by plebiscite, the Bangsamoro Organic Law that the first Philippine president from Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte, was able to get passed by the Philippine Congress in 2018.
But as if to show that nothing is to be taken for granted in those troubled parts of the Philippine south, a bomb exploded outside a shopping mall in Cotabato City on new year’s eve, killing two and wounding 30.
This, despite the fact that the whole region is more or less still on military alert and under martial law following the tragedy of the siege of Marawi City on the same island.
Peace, as always, is such a fragile creature and particularly when it seems to be on the verge of finally breaking out.
There are still any number of people and groups from within the island and also in the capital, Manila, who can — and perhaps inevitably will — throw a spanner or two to try to stop the political momentum towards a new autonomous dispensation for the Bangsamoro.
A particular danger in such a fraught environment, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cotabato City, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, has pointed out, is groups out to sow alarm amongst the Christian community of Mindanao with disinformation about the impending desecration of its holy places and a ban on Christian practices and cultural habits once the Bangsamoro Auto-nomous Region becomes reality.
Cardinal Quevedo, only the second actively serving prince of the Catholic church in the whole country, thus plays an out-sized and maybe perilous role to calm his followers in the divided city he presides over, as well as those beyond.
That he was elevated with a rare cardinal’s “red hat” by Pope Francis speaks volumes about the church’s abiding faith in what real peace in Mindanao requires: an equitable political settlement acceptable to both the majority and minority communities.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which spearheaded the armed and political struggle for Bangsamoro independence and eventually compromised on self-government with enhanced autonomy has an equally arduous task going forward in rallying its own troops (decommissioning them follows) and members to accept the compromise and avoid any further and damaging splintering away of more extreme elements.
It must also forge a common understanding with the Catholic church that assures non-Muslims of their rightful place in the new autonomous region to be born.
The political principle governing the creation of the new region and any additions to it in due course is that no community will be forced to become an integral part of the Bangsamoro region.
While sound in principle, it is not difficult to envision how this may create problems on the ground and in practice if it is not to result in the creation of the much-derided and territorially disjointed Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.
Looking on the positive side, this arrangement should serve as a further incentive for MILF — which will likely win popular elections to govern the Bangsamoro region — to be fair and equitable in its own governance, show that it can bring about a better economic future for those under its watch and ultimately to win over the confidence of those living in adjoining areas so that they may eventually opt as well to be part of the new region.
On the negative side, there is little confidence (reinforced by centuries of prejudice) in mainstream Philippine society that self-governance will make much difference to the lives of the ordinary people in the Bangsamoro region. To which knowledgeable Bangsamoro people will counter that while there may be some unique challenges confronting them, most of what holds them back are the same things which hold Philippine society back.
Non-Bangsamoro Filipinos, if they really mean well, should instead suspend their scepticism about Bangsamoro self-governance and observe if a different approach (such as through a parliamentary, rather than a presidential system that the Bang-samoro have chosen) may offer hopes of what is possible as well for the rest of the country.
Well-meaning foreigners (not least Malaysia which has invested much in helping to forge the emerging Bangsamoro reality) will also have critical roles to play to help fan the flickering flame that the Bangsamoro people have ignited so that it becomes a raging fire soon.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org