Australia supports peace and progress in the Bangsamoro

AUSSIE DIPLOMACY MATTERS - Steven J. Robinson - The Philippine Star

I know that when many Filipinos hear about Mindanao thoughts of conflict are not far behind. How could they not be, after decades of fighting and the loss of thousands of lives? But it’s been my great pleasure to watch the tide turning and see the people of the Bangsamoro and surrounding regions work together for a more peaceful home.

Australia is a longstanding supporter of the Bangsamoro peace process and development in conflict-affected Muslim Mindanao. We share with the people of the Bangsamoro the desire for an end to conflict, and it’s been heartening to see our support pay off.

Just a couple of weeks ago, at the start of National Peace Consciousness Month, President Duterte attended the launch of the second stage of “decommissioning” for Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants. This ceremony was another step towards a peaceful, stable Bangsamoro, with 40,000 men and women eventually to go through the process of returning to civilian life.

Alongside this, we see the energy and work going into the transition to the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, known as the BARMM, as members of the MILF take up governing instead of fighting.

But Mindanao is still a fragile place. The work of decommissioning and shifting former fighters to civilian life will be for nothing if the younger generation is not engaged to carry on the gains being made now.

Through our development program, Australia supports the youth of Mindanao to get involved in the peace process and to push back against the threat of violence extremism and conflict in their communities. Letting more young people lead and gain influence is essential to achieving a lasting peace in Mindanao. Young people are vulnerable to the pull of extremist groups (a problem we have in Australia as well). But this is not the only source of instability in Mindanao, where clan and political violence, along with private armed groups, are also a significant problem.

Over several visits I have made to the BARMM, I have been lucky enough to meet some of the terrific young people working to build a more peaceful home, such as the members of the Iranun Youth Corridor Network. This is a youth leadership program being delivered by our NGO partner, International Alert, that aims to build a network across the BARMM and adjoining regions to provide an early response to conflict and violent extremism.

The group I met spoke movingly of their experiences with conflict in their communities, including rido, the clan violence that affects so much of Mindanao. Members of the group had worked on several projects to engage their communities to overcome rido. They have made a documentary on how the spread of false information can lead to violence, arranged a conference on involving youth in alternative dispute mechanisms – and ran a volleyball peace league among rival clans!

Education is another area in which we know we can help raise a more peaceful generation. Australia has been supporting education in Muslim Mindanao for more than 20 years. Our current program, Education Pathways to Peace, works closely with the BARMM Government to get more kids into school, including in far flung barangays without access to public schools. We will also help to reform the curriculum so it better reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Bangsamoro and actively promotes peace and social cohesion. We take this work seriously, and we know the new BARMM government does too.

There’s a lot still to do in the BARMM. But everywhere I go there, I meet people who are dedicated to a better future – and I’m pleased to say Australia is proud to support this work, to ensure the next generation will associate Mindanao with something other than war.

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(Steven J. Robinson AO is the Australian ambassador to the Philippines.  Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH.)

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