– Scarred by nearly five decades of armed conflict, a violence-torn region in the southern Philippines is on a path to lasting peace, attracting more investors to rebuild the languishing economy and lift its people out of poverty.
Abdulkahar Nul, a businessman who owns a shopping complex in the city center of Cotabato, the largest city in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), looks at the sunny side of this newly created region.
It is building a four-story, 200-room hotel to provide more comfortable accommodations for investors coming to this city of 400,000.
In 2014, the Philippine government and Bangsamoro fighters 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 creation of BARMM in 2019, which has a six-year transition period.
Speaking at his office in the city of Cotabato, BARMM Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim said the security situation in the region has “significantly improved” in recent years and a development plan is in place to alleviate widespread poverty.
The 74-year-old prime minister said his government’s socio-economic policies focus on consolidating security and stability and providing a foundation for institution-building. The priorities are medical health, infrastructure, education and social services. “We hope to make progress in these fields before the transition is complete in 2025,” he said.
However, as one of the poorest regions in the Southeast Asian country, BARMM has a long way to go to reach its ambitious achievements.
According to government statistics, more than 37 percent of the region’s nearly 5 million people live below the poverty line. It has one of the highest levels of infant and maternal mortality and one of the lowest life expectancies.
Mohagher Iqbal, BARMM’s education minister, said peace and order are top concerns for investors. He confirmed that nearly 40,000 ex-combatants had been discharged, most becoming civilians and some becoming security agents.
“Not everything is easy, but if you have the political will, you will overcome all these obstacles,” said Iqbal, who had been the chief negotiator for the peace deal for 17 years, acknowledging that the region faces challenges in charting the socio-economic course. after a prolonged conflict.
“We are in our fourth year of transition and we hope to do more to provide public services to our people,” he said.
Philippine security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said restoring peace is one of BARMM’s most significant achievements.
“Normalization ensures that these armed groups will not disrupt the peaceful life of the people,” Banlaoi said. “Now, they are preparing to rule instead of fighting.”
In September this year, Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos expressed his administration’s “total and unwavering support” for the peace process in the region.
“I look forward to fulfilling his vision of achieving a united, enlightened, autonomous, peaceful, just, morally upright and progressive Bangsamoro,” Marcos said at the opening session of an 80-member parliament of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority 2022-2025. .
He urged the approval of measures for the well-being of the people, particularly in agriculture, medical care, transportation, communication, digital infrastructure, and electronic government. The Marcos administration allocated approximately US$1.3 billion in budget for the Bangsamoro region in 2023.
In fact, BARMM has high potential for growth and development, given its strategic location, dynamic workforce, and rich untapped natural resources such as natural gas, oil, solar and hydropower, as well as minerals.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, BARMM’s economy grew 7.5 percent in 2021, the second fastest growth among all regions in the country. The services sector led economic production with 38.9 percent; followed by agriculture, fishing and forestry with 36.4 percent; and industry with 24.7 percent.
Mohamad Omar Pasigan, head of the Bangsamoro Regional Board of Investment, believes that the path to lasting peace is a vibrant economy, noting that the region is poised to become one of the fastest growing economies in the Philippines.
Relatively low-cost workers, wealth of water and resources, promising tourism and employment generation are the main 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 investment opportunity is huge in this region. We provide incentives and special investment packages for investors,” Pasigan said, adding that investors from the Middle East, Turkey and some East Asian countries are looking for investment opportunities despite of the current COVID-19 pandemic. .
Ramia Kasim, a barista who works at an international chain coffee shop in the city of Cotabato, also has an optimistic outlook on the future. “Operation is normal. We’re back in business,” she said as she served customers.
BARMM Chief Minister Ebrahim reaffirmed that the current secure environment in the region 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.” ■