Imbuing hope and compassion for Mindanao

Korean Serenade - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is what I felt after watching the Women’s Month Concert where the Filipino piano virtuoso Cecile Licad performed with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra at the Manila Metropolitan Theater last March 19th. It was more than just a night of brilliant symphony. The concert displayed the magical force of music, finding boundless creativity, enrichment and unity in its encompassing vision.

Similarly, my recent visit to Mindanao, the first since my arrival, offered me an opportunity to see the great potential of Mindanao as a unifying force for the whole of the Philippines. During my visit, memories from my days as Ambassador of Korea to Myanmar kept coming back to me. After the civilian government came to power, the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi tried to bring Rakhine State – the least developed and most unstable – up to par with the rest of her country under the banner of “Myanmar for Rakhine, Rakhine for Myanmar.” It was the rallying cry for national unity and inclusive socio-economic development.

Mindanao is a huge landmass teeming with immense possibilities in terms of natural resources, scenic beauty and hard-working communities. Its strategic importance in the BIMP-EAGA (Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area) initiative cannot be understated. The BIMP-EAGA, wherein Korea is an active partner and donor, was launched in 1994 to boost growth in trade, investment and tourism through intra-region cooperation programs. As the Philippines and Korea celebrate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, my trip to Mindanao was designed to see firsthand Korea’s engagements in Mindanao and to explore areas for stronger partnership.

Mindanao has a great potential for tourism. Last year, Koreans ranked first in foreign travelers to the Philippines. It is no empty boast for Davao to be dubbed as a “sea to summit” destination. Situated at the gateway to Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ highest peak, the nearby island of Samal can be as popular as Cebu’s Mactan island. However, it still requires more tourist-friendly infrastructure and greater accessibility. Sadly, the negative perception of the security situation in Mindanao is blocking the gate to this tropical paradise.

In this regard, Korea strongly supports the Philippine government’s efforts to improve peace and stability in Mindanao, particularly by advancing the peace process in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). As the first elections in the BARMM is about a year off, the peace process stands at a critical juncture. A successful shift offers a genuine opportunity not only for enduring peace in Mindanao but also for the entire country. From my experience in the United Nations, I know how painstakingly hard and fragile the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process can be. If not well executed, DDR falls victim to spasms and sickening waves of violence. As Mr. Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General recounted in his memoir Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World, “without 360° agreement, every step is a battle in peace operations.” In this context, I completely agree with President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. who declared: “A stronger BARMM means a stronger Mindanao. A stronger Mindanao means a stronger Philippines, bringing us closer to achieving our agendas.”

After my Mindanao trip, I met with the parties involved in the peace process, including an MP from the six decommissioned camps. Underscoring the importance of the two tracks – decommissioning and normalization processes – moving in tandem, the group voiced hope that Mindanao can learn from Korea’s experience and emulate the Miracle on the Han River.

I am proud of the humble contributions of the Korean development cooperation partners, including the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), Korea Eximbank and various NGOs that have been implementing assistance programs in Mindanao, particularly in agriculture, infrastructure, health and sanitation, girls’ education, climate resilience and vocational training. The impending opening of the Eximbank-funded Panguil Bay Bridge – slated to be the longest sea bridge in Mindanao – will significantly spur economic growth in the region. During my visits to KOICA project sites of durian farm and vocational training, I had a glimpse of how they are helping the local communities. My exchange with the durian farmers convinced me of the benefits in agriculture under the Korea-Philippines Free Trade Agreement. Once ratified, the FTA will be a game-changer in the agro-fisheries industry.

A conversation I had with a young girl working at the auto repair workshop in TESDA’s Davao Vocational Training Center was heartwarming. When I asked her what she wanted to do after finishing the course, she replied that her “heart” is always with Mindanao and she wanted to stay in her hometown, to help it develop and flourish through the skills she had learned. It reminded me of the guiding philosophy of our development cooperation partnership: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Mindanao is an ideal place for pursuing assistance programs under the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. In this regard, the Mindanao Development Forum 2024 scheduled in May will provide a valuable platform for the Korean development partners to share their stock-taking and forward-looking perspectives.

My first trip to Mindanao enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of how Korea can do more together with Filipino and international partners to meet the local needs and rise up to any challenges. Hope springs eternal, but in transforming our hope into reality, Mindanao needs reliable partners. In this time of growing uncertainty, solidarity emerges not merely as a moral imperative but as a pragmatic necessity. As the adage goes, “A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong,” illustrating the potency of unity in the face of adversity. In our hyper-connected global landscape, what occurs “somewhere else” reverberates with immediate relevance and impact. This ethos forms the cornerstone of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, diplomatic initiative of President Yoon Suk Yeol: that all nations are inter-connected and have a responsibility to stop conflict, share the fruits of development and invest in empowering all people, everywhere. Thus, in embracing solidarity, we not only fortify our collective resilience but also cultivate a collective wisdom toward building a world where all have a chance at attaining freedom, peace and prosperity.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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