Mindanaoans getting on with the job despite COVID-19

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

No matter where you are in the Philippines – or the world, for that matter – the impacts of COVID-19 have spread far beyond the illness itself. Lockdown has seen every community struggle with economic, logistical and mental health impacts. In places already suffering from conflict, the effects have been even greater.

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which is working so hard to solidify the gains of the peace process, is no exception to this. Communities that were already struggling with the ravages of war have now had to contend with isolation, cut off from employment opportunities, family networks and support systems. When lockdown came into effect in March, many of the programs the Australian Government supports in Muslim Mindanao suddenly found themselves unable to reach vulnerable people, hold meetings or get supplies through.

But in a real testament to the resilience of the Filipino people, we have seen Mindanaoans come up with new ways of working, and find ways to provide support in the face of daunting restrictions.

Australia has long supported work to assist with the peace process, reduce conflict, ensure inclusive participation in political processes by the public and counter violent extremism. Our partners in this work took on the challenge of COVID-19 with barely a pause. International Alert, which usually concerns itself with conflict monitoring, released detailed area maps to local governments in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, where they were used for emergency planning and response. The Institute for Autonomy and Governance, unable to run many of the face-to-face workshops that are the bread-and-butter of their work supporting transition in the Bangsamoro, helped ensure indigenous peoples groups in the Bangsamoro received hygiene kits and training on social distancing and other health measures. The Mindanao Trust Fund, managed by the World Bank, assisted in curbing COVID-19’s spread in Moro Islamic Liberation Front camps and in helping communities recover from the socio-economic impacts of quarantine.

In Basilan, we support an important reintegration program with former Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members. I was lucky enough to visit Basilan last year for the program launch, and found a beautiful island that I hope one day everyone will be able to visit. This innovative program is helping these former ASG members build new, constructive lives. With the sudden lockdown, much of its work, which included trips to Luzon to learn about agriculture and see life in the Philippines more broadly, could not take place. NGO Balay Mindanaw, which runs the program, provided farm essentials to 300 families, ensuring they could continue to support themselves and keep rebuilding their lives.

The attack in Sulu last week shows us again that violent extremism and conflict is still close to the surface in many parts of Mindanao, and the importance of supporting those who are trying to combat it. The people of Sulu have known great hardship over the years, and this attack, which took the lives of 15 people, seems a particularly cruel way to compound that struggle. We know that terrorist organizations regard the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of the vulnerability of people, and we must continue to push back on that and give them no quarter.

We have seen how hard the BARMM government has worked to ensure its health system is up to the demand and how Zamboanga City has provided health assistance and logistical support to ensure food and other essential supplies can get to Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan. Soon, decommissioning of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front combatants will recommence, an immensely complicated process and an important step towards long-lasting peace in the region. Australia is also proud to support this work. But if one thing has been clear over the past six months, it is that the people of Mindanao are not willing to let something like a pandemic stop them from working for a better future.

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The author is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines.  Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH.

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