BANGSAMORO: Can the good doctor
resuscitate the ARMM?

By Ann Bernadette S. Corvera 02/07/2002

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He said it himself. New Autonomous Region in
Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Governor Parouk
Hussin admitted to the "daunting tasks" of
rebuilding one of the poorest regions in the
country, saddled with violence from the worst
lawless elements and riddled with a
long-drawn peace process.

Refusing to be fazed by the ARMM’s fragile
situation, Hussin, a former physician,
expressed optimism over the future of his
territory citing the "solid support" of President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration and
the "renewed confidence" of the international

"We are in for a very, very good start."

So ended the opening remarks of Gov. Hussin in his first ever press conference
since he was sworn into office on Jan. 5, 2002.

With this new leadership, the question of foreseeing hope for the embattled
region, which has a high poverty incidence of 68.28 (as of year 2000) is stirred
up among its citizenry of 2.88 million.

Can the good doctor born and raised in the province of Sulu revive the
poverty-stricken, strife-torn region?

What crucial steps will Hussin’s administration take to get the ARMM back on
track? More importantly, will these lead to long-awaited reforms and lasting
peace for the region?

Mindanao, a bountiful land with diverse cultures and ethnicity, is unfortunately
oft perceived as a disorderly region because of the protracted armed Muslim
rebellion, kidnapping, territorial wars and even family feuds among tribal clans.
Mindanao remains a misunderstood region.

Hussin, a Tausug ("People of the Sea Current") by descent, acknowledges the
fact that the average head of the family in the South possesses a gun which he
is inclined to use "to procure the requirements for your family."

Mindanao, he says, especially in the Muslim South is commonly observed with
this "exact situation" prompting his administration to address first and foremost
the peace and order situation in the ARMM, which he says would bring
development to the land.

"Peace and order is a topmost priority because like what I have always
emphasized we cannot move forward with development unless there is stability
in the area. Without stability, it’s very difficult even our own friends and
sympathizers in the international community would have to reconsider many
things if the area is not safe, (and) is not secured," Hussin told
when asked if his administration would prioritize peace and order over security
amid the many complex problems of the ARMM.

To aspire for a united Bangsamoro ("the Moro People") is "partly rhetoric,"
Hussin admits, but adds that this vision for the ARMM could only be attained if
"stability" is present.

Hussin highlighted the unity agreement signed between the Moro National
Liberation Front (MNLF) -- which he is a member -- and the breakaway group,
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Could this be the defining move that will unite both Muslim groups, which
became divided when the MILF opted to continue the fight for Muslim
independence? Hussin looks forward to what the Bangsamoro people could
gain from the unity accord.

With the passage of the New Organic Act 9054, the ARMM’s geographical
coverage was expanded to include Marawi City and the trouble-plagued Basilan
province. The autonomous region previously included only Maguindanao and
Lanao del Sur; both in Central Mindanao; Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, both in the far

The inclusion of Basilan, where kidnappings are as commonly seen as the
monstrous traffic jams in Metro Manila, poses even a bigger dilemma for
Hussin who had to inherit a bloated bureaucracy, an almost emptied treasury
and a not all-too inspiring image in the eyes of the international community.

The Basilan challenge
Basilan is the focus of the joint military exercises between the Philippines and
the United States dubbed "Balikatan 02-1." Three hostages of the dangerous
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are being held somewhere in its dense jungles. Two
of the captives are American missionaries, couple Martin and Gracia Burnham,
who were seized May of last year along with other vacationers at the Dos
Palmas resort in Palawan.

Since the military launched an all-out rescue effort following the bandit group’s
major catch, the other hostages either escaped or were freed after ransom
payments were allegedly made.

The Burnhams and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap are all that remains in the
hands of Muslim extremist group, now classified by the US as a terrorist group
with links to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. Bin Laden was tagged as
the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US.

Gov. Hussin notes the continuing captivity of the American missionary couple
should be taken into consideration in understanding the controversial arrival of
660 fully armed American soldiers who have been allowed — for the first time
— to observe local operations in actual combat zones during the war games.

Amending his earlier position rejecting any US military intervention in the
hostage crisis, Hussin defended the presence of American soldiers saying they
"are not here to engage in actual combat," rather to train their Filipino
counterparts in their dealings with terrorists.

"We are against foreigners engaging in combat because this is a violation of
the Constitution, but they (US troops) are not here to do that," the governor
explained to reporters at his press conference.

He adds, "But we have to understand that right now there are two Americans in
the hands of the terrorists. We should not be surprised if the American
government is here to lend support to our forces which is basically an
expression of concern for their citizens."

Hussin, who had acted as one of the negotiators during the Sipadan hostage
crisis instigated by the ASG in May 2000, objects to the "glorifying" of the
bandit group merely because of its ties with the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

"There may be some kind of close linkage, but to equate them (Abu Sayyaf)
with the Al Qaeda I think is an exaggeration," the governor declared.

The Abu Sayyaf is a "continuing concern" for the national government including
the local government units and law enforcement agencies, says Gov. Hussin.

Even with Basilan – one of two ASG strongholds, the other being Sulu –now
under ARMM coverage, Hussin’s administration bows to the "competence of
the national government" in deciding whether or not additional RP-US joint
military exercises would be conducted in the future.

According to the governor, matters concerning "national defense," in referring to
future conducts of the ‘Balikatan’ exercise, does not fall within the local
government’s competence but said he would be "happy" if consulted on this.

In the accelerated development plan for Basilan, Gov. Hussin pointed to the
notorious activities of the Abu Sayyaf as cause for the province's unstable

Basilan remains to be the poorest province in the region and belongs to the top
ten provinces with the highest poverty incidence in the country. Its human
development index (hdi) is only 0.427, which is fifth to the lowest among the 77
provinces in the Philippines, the report said.

With this, the new ARMM administration aims to sustain peace, develop the
agri-industrial sector and empower the people to develop the efficiency and
competitiveness of Basilan's economy.

In a conciliatory mood
The promise of a new beginning for the Bangsamoros failed to materialize some
five years after the signing of the peace agreement between the Government of
the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MNLF.

And Gov. Hussin realizes this as did the entire country with Misuari, his
predecessor, taking most of the blame for the damaged hope and optimism
that initially was embraced by Muslim Mindanao.

"It's a very, very sad development," says Hussin.

Misuari, apparently not cut out to be a bureaucrat in the first place, was
assessed to have a lackluster performance in the five years or so that he was
ARMM governor.

In the 1996 Peace Accord, he dropped the MNLF's demand for an independent
Islamic state and settled for autonomy. The rebel leader who headed the MNLF
for two decades amid hostilities and several peace negotiations with the
government became a reluctant administrator. Hussin vows to maintain a
conciliatory attitude towards Misuari whom he said should not entirely be
blamed for the ARMM's woes. "It is very sad that in his governance, he ran into
all kinds of trouble (but) I don’t think this is all the fault of Misuari," Hussin
says, but quickly adds, "but you are the leader (and) command of responsibility
dictates that you have to answer for the mistakes of your subordinates." He
assured Misuari "is treated with justice, with dignity, with fairness" as he
languishes in jail for charges of rebellion for allegedly instigating attacks on
military detachments last November. For Hussin, heading the ARMM is an
opportunity for "reconciliation and reconstruction" despite the dismal
performance of the previous administration. But on the question of past ARMM
officials allegedly having embezzled funds, the governor said they will be "made
to answer for their violations." Reviving the ARMM It will take more than
optimism and the backing of the national government to get the ARMM back on
its feet, all bruised and battered from war and poverty. The man at the helm of
this poor region knows this.

Confident that the international community had erased any memory of Misuari
in the ARMM, Hussin and ARMM Executive Secretary Nabil Tan buckled down
to work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) concerning
the donor agency's pledge to infuse into the region an initial $20 million of $55
million earmarked for the development of Mindanao. Speaking at the press
conference, Tan said they are in the process of reviewing the allotment of the
USAID funds but added that the donor agency had initialed $5-million worth of
training for former MNLF combatants under the livelihood and peace programs.
He added the money would start coming in from donor partners once the new
leadership has presented its framework based on the governor's vision on the
expanded autonomous region.

On rebuilding the local mechanisms for economic and social development, Gov.
Hussin announced President Arroyo's approval of the ARMM's own East
ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA) taken from the Brunei
Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines EAGA (BIMP-EAGA) aimed at
strengthening the autonomous region's involvement in the growth area.

The idea of putting up a "national BIMP-EAGA," as what Gov. Hussin calls it,
was formed after constituents of the ARMM complained of not having "exactly
benefited" from the trade arrangement.

He said assigned committees will make sure that any form of assistance will
go directly to the ARMM with commercial and trade areas prioritized.

Muslim leaders had earlier urged the Bangsamoro people to wage an
"economic jihad" (traditionally, meaning holy war), to enhance linkages among
business groups in the EAGA and provide equal opportunities and a
level-playing field to Muslim entrepreneurs in Mindanao who wish to interact
with their EAGA counterparts.

On the allocation of the national budget, Hussin pledged "equitable distribution"
among his constituents but "depending on certain conditions and guidelines"
as he explained there are areas more depressed than the others that may get
larger chunks of the funds.

The national government has provided P750 million to the ARMM to jumpstart
its development programs.

Hussin's takeover as new ARMM governor and the relevance of Republic Act
9054, the law on the expanded ARMM amending RA 6734 or the ARMM
Organic Act, have given the region an almost refreshing look.

The governor is confident the New Organic Act granted a very strengthened
regional autonomous arrangement that has empowered the new leaders to
create their own plans and policies faithful to their commitment to rebuild the
ARMM. Will Gov. Hussin succeed where his predecessors have failed? He said
he would want to "make an attempt " for the ARMM to flourish. So for now, let
us just watch the good doctor at work.