I WAS invited to moderate the plenary session on Mindanao and the Duterte Agenda which was part of the 2018 International Conference of the Philippine Political Science Association held in Davao City last April 5.

It was a fitting start to the conference discourse after the opening programme. As keynote speaker Atty. Benny Bacani of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) pointed out, Mindanao had become the “new power center” under Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

The panel discussion was designed as an exploration of Mindanao issues and their effects on the policies and governance style of the current leadership and conversely, how President Duterte’s actions impact on the issues.

Atty. Datu Mike Mastura of the Sultan Kudarat Islamic Academy, Prof. Rufa Guiam of the Independent Working Group on Transitional Justice-Dealing with the Past, Dr. Pancho Lara of International Alert, and Fr. Jun Mercado, OMI of IAG—all scholars knowledgeable about the topic and respected for their work—were the panelists.

In hindsight, there ought to have been indigenous representation in the panel. Unfortunately, the discussion missed out on an opportunity to bring in the voices of those who are a crucial part of Mindanao and highly affected by government policies.

The discussion was rich, touching on a range of points, but I will focus on the questions the panel set out to address.

Noticeably, questions and comments about the Duterte agenda topped audience input that came in via the online application sli.do.

During the 2016 campaign, the Duterte camp drummed up the promise of achieving federalism and combatting illegal drugs, corruption, and poverty. One would have thought that these had become public knowledge as the agenda of the administration. Added to these was his commitment, declared during the inaugural speech, to honor signed peace agreements.

Perhaps the conference participants were not really inquiring into the agenda itself and rather were offering critiques of how the agenda had been pursued—or not—21 months into the term.

Dr. Lara’s view was that the president’s pronouncement to revive peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF) to declare a bilateral ceasefire and, if necessary, replace revolutionary tax collected by NDF forces is an example of how Duterte’s grasp of Mindanao is shaping his approaches. Military estimates put annual NDF collection from two Southern Mindanao provinces at PhP 460 million.

Proclamation 360 called off NDF talks in November 2017; differences in Duterte’s positions about revolutionary taxation had been previously noted.

From Fr. Mercado’s perspective, the Duterte government started strongly. Executive directives reconstituting the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) and creating a Consultative Committee (ConCom) on amendments to the 1987 Constitution were among its first actions in late 2016.

However, BTC members were named three months later, giving it only a few months to come up with a draft legislation. Similarly, the ConCom was constituted only in February 2018, over a year since EO 10 was issued in December 2016.

End of January 2018, President Duterte expressed preference for federalism legislation to be put in place before the BBL. Two weeks later, Sec. Jess Dureza said that the president wanted BBL passed while the shift to federalism is in process.

Other developments such as the destruction of a fourth of Marawi’s barangays, extended Martial Law in Mindanao, and apparent confusion in politicians’ attempts to flesh out federalism from a unitary point of view are trajectories that seem parallel and could even be contradictory in Fr. Mercado’s analysis. They put to question whether the agenda is being deliberately and coherently pursued.

Because the trajectories represent or are interpretations of his directions, then the president is influencing Mindanao issues. The concern that coherence—or lack of it—is contributing to complications that distract from the resolution of Mindanao issues is valid. Inconsistent messaging would embolden BBL detractors and confuse the public about federalism. What happens in Marawi moving forward and abuses under Martial Law could have adverse impacts on the Bangsamoro and NDF peace tables that have Mindanao as their main theatre of armed contestation.

Atty. Mastura’s reminder that historical and territorial injustices are the backdrop against which changes have to be measured cannot be repeated enough, as is Prof. Guiam’s exhortation that both offline classrooms and online chatrooms be used as platforms to address misinformation and disinformation about Mindanao issues and the Duterte administration. After all, Pres. Duterte is not the only Mindanawon—and Filipino—shaped by and shaping Mindanao issues.

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