COTABATO CITY – After a long struggle for freedom in the Philippines' Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, Muslims, Christians and other minorities show the world how people can live in peace despite past unpleasant experiences, said the representative of Turkish non-governmental organization.
The Bangsamoro Muslims, long deprived of freedom under Spain, the US, Japan and the modern Philippine state, were granted autonomy after historic referenda held on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6 in southern Mindanao.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Omer Kesmen, the representative of the Istanbul-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in Bangsamoro, said all ethnic and religious groups in the region learned to live side by side after the referendum.
Kesmen attributed this to the understanding of war and sensitivity that were shown by Hashim Salamat, the late leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), during the conflict.
"During the conflicts between the MILF and the Philippines government, Hashim Salamat always warned his fighters not to harm civilians," he said.
He said nowadays if all groups in the region are living together in peace, this is thanks to Salamat's sensitive approach towards civilians.
Asked about the relationship between the government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and minorities, he said all parties were content to live with each other.
"Haji Murad Ebrahim, Chief Minister of Bangsamoro Autonomous Government (BAG), and Muslims know minority psychology very well, because, they had lived under the rule of the Philippine government as a minority for many years," he said.
Kesmen said that after the referendum, Ebrahim assured minorities that their rights would be respected and has kept his word.
He also said minorities were doing their best to ease the regional government's work.
"People support the government. All groups in the region began to solve their hostilities and problems between them peacefully. They do this to support the government that ends the chaos and war by bringing peace because they no longer want to go back to bad times," he said.
On the social changes following the referendum, he said people were finally able to live normal social lives.
"Due to the conflicts, people had too much stress. They were even destitute of their basic needs. But now, they can go out safely and they can do what they want to do. Thanks to the peace, most people started to tend to trade and education," he said.
Importance of the region
On the sources of income, Kesmen said the region is very rich in natural resources.
"According to the agreements [with the central government], the regional government will receive 5 percent of the budget of the central government next year and this figure will be on average USD2 billion. But it is expected that the most important sources of income in the region will come from underground sources," he said.
Kesmen said gold, natural gas and oil were expected to be in the region.
IHH activities in the region
On the IHH activities in Bangsamoro, Kesmen said the foundation has been helping people in the region since 1997 with the encouragement of the government of Turkey under then-premier Necmettin Erbakan.
"While we provided food and basic needs to the people in the region since 1997, we decided to build permanent works in 2009. Therefore, in line with the locals' needs, we built our first orphanage and opened it in 2011," he said.
He stressed that there were almost 10,000 children orphaned due to past conflicts in the region, with the foundation taking care of 700 of them.
He said the foundation continued to build orphanages, schools, wells, mosques and soup kitchens for locals since 2011.
"Our foundation also works for the development of local people by opening vocational courses and by providing scholarships to people who want to continue with their university education," he said.
Kesmen also said the foundation had contributed to peace in the region as one of the five members of the impartial International Monitoring Team (IMT) of the peace process.
He added that both regional and central government officials always expressed their appreciation for the efforts of the IHH.
While talking about the activities of the foundation, Kesmen gave a tour of the Ugur Suleyman Soylemez Orphanage, located in one of the slums of Cotabato city in the BARMM.
In May 2010, Israeli troops stormed the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid ship in international waters, killing 10 Turkish activists.
Ugur Süleyman Soylemez was one of the martyrs killed during the raid. He was seriously injured in the attack and was in a coma for four years. He was martyred in 2014.
Kesmen said the foundation named the orphanage after Soylemez to keep his memory alive.
Challenges in charity works
Kesmen said that although he is so happy to help people, he had been through many hardships during this work.
"It was very difficult to come here while the conflicts continued. Almost all of the airports here were military airports and the region was not a tourist destination. For this reason, the central government authorities directly deported people who wanted to come here," he said.
Stressing the severity of the conflicts and the chaos in the region, Kesmen said he witnessed many bad incidents.
"The distance between my home and work is about 10 miles. While coming to my job from my house, I saw at least several murders or bodies every morning," he said.
Also, on the geographical structure of the region, he said transportation was one of the most crucial problems in which people needed help.
He said the central government closely followed and recorded their efforts and steps for many years.
"They gained experience [in relief efforts] in the region from us. Besides that, they facilitated aid activities," he said.
On the expectations of the people in the region from the international community, Kesmen said locals hoped for financial assistance from the international community, especially Turkey and other Muslim countries, to increase the economic circumstances of the region and the education of its people.
Stressing the importance of education, he completed his interview, citing the words of Haji Murad.
"This struggle for independence was made by us, however, the children of those who are not in this struggle will rule this state in the future. Because, when we were fighting, their children got well educated. Therefore, we must pay the necessary attention to the education of our children," he said. (Anadolu)