THE unsteady peace process system and historical grievances rooted in a long-decade ethnoreligious and geopolitical conflict in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao have remained the focus and central substructure of international travel restrictions, including the global media.
Countries, particularly those in an intergovernmental political and economic forum (G7) are sensitive to any political movement or any destabilizations, causing them to impose travel advisories to certain places which further impact the Philippines’ and other country’s bilateral relationships and the socioeconomic development of a region that is subject to travel issues.
This is now what the archipelago’s “land of promise” is currently facing.
Canada’s surprise travel advisory earlier this month contradicted the mainstream reporting depicting the present condition of most regions of the island as now free of violence, insurgency, and terrorism.
In fact, the creation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) last 2018 opens a lot of opportunities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim in Mindanao (Barmm) apparent on the ongoing foreign investments, further strengthening the economic landscape of the area and improving peace and economic situation among tri-people (Muslims, Lumads, and Christians).
Over the past five years, Bangsamoro region’s economy has consecutively ranked in the top three or five fastest-growing regions in the Philippines, especially in the agricultural sector where, in 2022, the area recorded a 6.6 percent rate as announced by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA-Barmm).
Security-wise, according to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity (Opapru) Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. during the recent 3rd Bangsamoro Public Order and Security Conference, Barmm has significantly improved due to the newly created Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) under the present administration.
“The joining of the MNLF of Chair Nur Misuari with the MILF-led BTA is auspicious and heralds a significant step towards unity in the Barmm,” Galvez pointed out.
Currently, Mindanao is already positioned to boost the nation's economy by 2024 as presented during the Philippine Economic Briefing (PEB) in Davao City last 2023.
The rising economy in several areas in the past few years can be attributed to the island’s growing industries of tourism and agriculture and clean renewable energy.
In line with this, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has tied with other international development partners to secure financing, climate adaptation, elevate poverty, disaster resiliency, and post-conflict rehabilitation on the island; for so long, Mindanao has always demonstrated its worth as key contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Canada’s travel advisory
The Canadian government issued an alert on January 10th, advising travelers not to visit the following Mindanao provinces because of the grave risk of terrorism, kidnapping, high rates of criminal activity, and violent conflicts between rebel groups and security forces:
The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (which includes Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao), Northern Mindanao (which includes Bukidnon, Camiguin, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, and Misamis Oriental), Soccsksargen (which includes Cotabato, Sarangani, South Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat), and Zamboanga Peninsula (which includes Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, and Zamboanga Sibugay) are the Mindanao provinces listed in the advisory.
On the other hand, the recommendation also advised travelers to stay away from non-essential travel to the following destinations in Eastern Mindanao: Caraga (Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Dinagat Islands, and Surigao del Norte, except Siargao Island).
Its neighboring areas and regions in Eastern Mindanao were also included, only excluding Davao City from the negative advisory, prompting officials and businessmen in the jurisdiction to question the decision.
Concerns and sentiments by several organizations
The “bases and scope” of the Canadian government have left all security and government agencies in the Philippines perplexed, particularly the National Security Council (NSC).
This is because the peace and order situation in the region has significantly improved over the past seven years; therefore, the advisory does not reflect the real security situation on the ground.
To recall, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos lifted Proclamation No. 55, which declared a state of national emergency on account of lawlessness and violence in Mindanao, on July 27, 2023.
The president himself announced that there are no longer active Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army guerrilla fronts in Mindanao after the military forces had neutralized 1,399 communist and local terrorist members across the country.
Following the incident, the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) immediately released its statement, doubting the bases of the Canadian government.
“We are disheartened to know of the recent advisories from embassies strongly discouraging travel to Mindanao. Many of these advisories do not reflect the current situation in the island-region. Rest assured that we will continue to bring development closer to the communities through a whole-of-government approach,” Maria Belen Acosta, chairman of MinDA, stated.
Meanwhile, Adrian Tamayo, head of MinDA's public relations department, affirmed that Mindanao is enjoying the benefits of peace, safety, and security as evidenced by the quarterly monitoring survey.
“The best evidence of the gains of peace is the reduction of poverty owing to the fact that there are no IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) around. Because there are no IDPs, no bakwits anymore, they are finding their ways, exercising their freedom, exercising their right to live,” Tamayo said at Monday’s Kapehan sa Dabaw last January 21.
“If we could remember that Agusan del Sur before was a rebel-infested area, when we did the study there, the people said that they were moving towards the government side,” Tamayo added.
European Chamber on travel advisory
Currently, the business council hopes to have a constructive political dialogue with the authorities of the Canadian government as business and tourism industries in Mindanao might be disrupted following their recent travel advisory.
“Obviously, the one that will really get affected here is the tourism sector because of that kind of advisory. We really think that there is going to be an impact. If we do not do anything about this, the chances of more advisories will make it more difficult for us to really get out of that problem of a negative perception of Mindanao,” Tony Peralta, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce Philippines-Southern Mindanao Business Council (ECCP-SMBC), expressed his sentiments on January 22 during the Kapehan sa Dabaw at SM Ecoland, Davao City.
Davao City chamber’s response to travel advisory
Despite the exclusion of Davao City from the advisory, the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (DCCCII) affirmed and clarified that the whole situation in Mindanao is developing due to comprehensive efforts done by the Philippine government.
It is evident in the improved infrastructure, with ongoing projects set to further enhance connectivity, and increase in both local and international flights, the presence of the different Consulate Generals of different countries, and growing Information Communication Technology (ICT) hubs.
“Davao Chamber believes that it is crucial to differentiate travel advisories with the security of commercial activities. These are distinct matters, as evidenced by the thriving ICT and service industries, among others, in Mindanao, particularly in Davao” DCCCII’s statement said.
“The people of Mindanao are known for their peaceful nature, and experiencing their culture, interacting with locals, and immersing oneself in the environment can transform initial and perceived negative impressions into positive ones. It is imperative to dispel unfounded fears, uncertainties, and doubts” the statement added.
Mindanao Tourism Congress of the Philippines
Marilou Ampuan, vice president of the Mindanao Tourism Congress of the Philippines, admitted that the Canadian embassy overlooked the previous programs that helped elevate the social condition of Mindanao.
“We here in Davao [City] are very confident but then, we are still partially affected because we are part of Southern Mindanao. As one Mindanao, we need to unite to have a position paper if possible, to clear the advisory. The Build Build program of our former president Rodrigo Duterte paved the way to reach, and elevate the situation of isolated areas, areas that were once not accessible. We are now secured,” Ampuan said in an ambush interview during the 1st General Membership Meeting of the DCCCII, on Friday afternoon, January 26, 2024. at the Grand Men Seng Hotel in Pichon Street former Magallanes.
The recent bombing inside the Mindanao State University’s Dimaporo gymnasium during a Catholic Mass on December 3 last year was one of the major criteria by the Canadian government, according to an official by MinDA.
“Probably, the MSU bombing that happened last year is among the basis but the government immediately investigated it and as of now, the situation in the area is clear” Tamayo, Public Relations and Division Head of MinDA revealed.
Meanwhile, in a statement, Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez considered the advisory “unfair” for it diminishes the efforts of the Philippine military in achieving a peaceful Mindanao.
“As Canadian officials must have noticed, we have not had any serious cases of bombing or violence in Mindanao in recent years, even in areas that are traditionally known for armed conflict. So it’s not fair for any foreign government to impose a shotgun travel advisory on our island,” he expressed.
The incident that left four casualties while injuring more than 50 individuals was the only major terrorist attack in Barmm in the past few years.
Investigation shows that the attack was orchestrated by pro-Islamic State militants in response to the military operation in Maguindanao del Sur which killed 11 militants including several members of the Dawlah Islamiyah-Philippines group in Maguindanao del Sur last December 1.
One of the alleged suspects was confirmed to be a former Agricultural Engineering student of MSU in 1993 but stopped his studies based on the database or digital track record of the university.
Mindanao is not only the major breadbasket of the Philippines, but it is also considered the melting pot of diverse cultures, religions, and traditions wherein people regardless of historical roots unite in pursuit of one goal - “kalinaw” or “peace”.
Today, the region that is prominently conveyed as a troubled area is Barmm as it has been grappled with sociopolitical turmoil and open-ended radicalism between the state and Islamic terrorists.
However, with the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), the country’s lead on innovative ways of peacemaking signed by the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on March 27, 2014, Barmm and the rest of Mindanao is now its way to end violence and reach a peaceful conclusion. DEF