The Bangsamoro peace process in the Philippines is “fundamentally” on track, though the novel coronavirus pandemic has delayed the proper implementation of the agreements between the central government and autonomous region, observers said Monday.

Addressing a virtual news conference, members of the Third-Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) for the peace process in the predominantly Muslim south of the country, however, asserted that they did not have the mandate to seek an extension of the transition phase beyond June 2022 when the transitional government’s term in office ends.

The TPMT was formed in 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to monitor the implementation of peace agreements signed between the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants.

TPMT chair Heino Marius, a former EU diplomat, told the conference that the virus outbreak had resulted in delays in the peace agreements’ implementation, including in a third round of decommissioning former fighters.

“Peace agreements should be carried out in a holistic manner but the decisions [to extend the transition phase] are up to the two parties,” he insisted.

After a historic referendum was held on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6 last year in southern Mindanao granting autonomy to Moro Muslims in Bangsamoro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Al Haj Murad Ebrahim as chief minister to administer the Bangsamoro Transition Authority through June 2022 when the normalization process is expected to be completed.

However, there have recently been demands that the transition period is extended to at least 2025 the so normalization process could be fully achieved.

Huseyin Oruc, deputy president of Istanbul-based IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) and member of the TPMT, said the two parties — the Philippine national government and Ebrahim-led MILF “have done a lot, definitely, to complete the process.”

“Both parties need time,” he said. “The MILF is a revolutionary group and [they] are not politicians. It is the first time they came to government and it will take them more time to change the MILF from revolutionary [group] to government.”

He explained that it was not easy for the MILF to make a “proper political party” and run in the elections.

“Both parties want more time […] it will support the peace [process],” he emphasized.

“It is up to the two parties what steps are required to complete the normalization under the transition government,” said Marius, adding: “Political and normalization phases should go hand-in-hand to achieve the full transition.”

Parliamentary government

Marius praised the autonomous region for its success in forming a parliamentary government system, which he said was a “very big achievement.”

“There is the chief minister, cabinet who are busy making legislation, and Bangsamoro Codes was recently adopted,” he said, referring to the key legislation passed in October to define the structure and workings of government in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

“Two governments cooperate with each on mutual respect,” he said underlining that this was also an expression of Bangsamoro’s “right of identity.”

“But, overall, there are positive developments vis-a-vis political and normalization processes.”

However, Marius said the sides needed urgently to act to establish an automatic transfer mechanism for Bangsamoro’s budget, in the form of block grants from the national government. “It needs to be easy and direct without any hurdles,” he said.

“It is also very important Bangsamoro normalization goes online as there are also [foreign] donors willing to help,” added Marius.

While Bangsamoro is allowed autonomy on some matters, these require all agreements to first be implemented.

The TPMT also applauded the regional government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is effective,” Marius said. “The government has demonstrated a high degree of commitment.”

Delayed formation of police force

In its overall expression, the third-party team voiced concern for the delay in the formation of the regional police force in Bangsamoro from decommissioned fighters of the MILF and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under the transition plan.

“Decommissioning of 12,000 combatants has been achieved […] it is a genuine achievement but the third round of decommissioning has not yet commenced, which is running behind the time,” said Marius, blaming health and budgetary restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the agreements between the MILF and the Philippine national government, 40,000 former combatants have to be decommissioned and some of them can be rehabilitated into the regional police forces. Currently, the second batch of 14,000 combatants is undergoing decommissioning.

For his part, Oruc underscored the importance of security and the formation of the police force for the region and its people.

“We hope [two sides] find a better solution […] an acceptable solution to form police,” said Oruc, who has visited the Philippines and Bangsamoro over 40 times in the last seven years.

Marius added that there was a “gap in perspective” between the national and regional governments on the issue, particularly on the criteria for decommissioned​​​​​​​ combatants to join the police force.

Noting that under the region’s law, former combatants being recruited as police would not be held to age and education requirements, he added that the team expected the two sides “to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution soon.”

‘Rehabilitation of Marawi region slow’

Referring to the restive Marawi region, Oruc said: “I would like to remind all stakeholders that the rehabilitation process of Marawi is slow. It has created frustration in people.”

Warning that this threatened to make room for ISIS/Daesh terrorists in the region, he applauded the government and MILF for cooperating against the group.

“We need to take necessary steps and I don’t see a big difficulty in it, it just needs more attention,” he added.

Another TPMT member, Karen Tanada, said the proposed commission for indigenous people was also yet to be formed in the region.

“There needs more attention on the needs of indigenous people and I expect the [normalization process] to be more participatory with representation from non-Moro indigenous people too,” she said.

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