PRISTINE BEAUTY. An aerial shot of one of the majestic white-sand islands in Tawi-Tawi province located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Mindanao is reaping "dividends of peace", particularly in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, now the second fastest-growing region in the country in terms of economic activity, according to Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity. (Screengrab from Project Lupad)

MANILA – Mindanao is reaping "dividends of peace", particularly in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), now the second fastest-growing region in the country in terms of economic activity, according to Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, on Wednesday.

In a statement, Galvez said BARMM’s economy grew by 7.5 percent in 2021, a "remarkable" feat amid the pandemic, a testament of the region's vast economic potential.

"This is not only a testament of the region’s vast economic potential but also an indication of stable peace and order conditions,” Galvez said. “The region has now become a show window of peace and development. It has certainly come a long way since the days when investors shied away from the area because they were unsure of their safety. This is now a thing of the past."

Reacting to journalist Raissa Robles’ Twitter post on June 2, Galvez said putting Mindanao in a bad light is “worrisome.”

Galvez raised concerns after Robles questioned the preparedness of Mindanao areas to secure foreign tourists against the rebel Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Robles’ tweet came after incoming Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco laid down her plans to further open up Mindanao for foreign travelers.

“We are not quite sure about Ms. Robles’ intentions but she is instilling fear among local and foreign travelers who wish to visit Mindanao. By doing so, she is creating a negative image of the place in the public’s eye which I find worrisome,” Galvez said.

Galvez said the negative views thrown by Robles about Mindanao as a whole must be "unfair" to the current and previous administrations, local government units (LGUs), and the security sector that “have been working very hard to put an end to Mindanao conflict” for years.

The same stakeholders were "tireless and relentless" in improving the overall peace and order situation in Mindanao, he added.

“Ms. Robles claims that she has been covering terrorism in Mindanao for the longest time. If this is the case, then she must know that the attacks perpetrated by terror groups have significantly gone down during the term of President [Rodrigo] Duterte,” Galvez said.

Decline in violent incidents

Galvez said the significant decline in violent incidents in the Sulu archipelago was noticeable following the heightened presence of military forces within communities.

“Particularly through the military brigades and battalions that have been strategically deployed in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi,” he added.

“As the former commander of the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), we focused on addressing the threat posed by the ASG and other terror groups by making our presence felt and working closely with LGUs to ensure peace and security in their areas,” Galvez said.
The efforts resulted in many ASG members returning to the folds of the law and now embracing a peaceful life.

"The numbers of the ASG are dwindling. Hundreds have already surrendered and are now living peacefully with their families. They no longer have the influence over the communities, particularly in Basilan and Tawi-Tawi,” he said.

During his stint as an active military member, Galvez said he personally saw and felt the determination of LGUs and their communities to get rid of lawless elements, address the roots of armed violence, and bring genuine peace and sustainable development within their localities.

“Having previously worked closely with local chief executives and other community leaders for many years, I could really sense their commitment and desire to present their areas in a better, more positive light. There was even a catchphrase: from terrorism to tourism,” he added.

Galvez said Robles could be trying to implore images of the “wild, wild west” when describing Mindanao, but in reality, “this island region is now emerging as a leading eco-tourism, trading and commercial hub.”

“This is an anachronistic way of picturing Mindanao. It is a throwback to the Mindanao of old when armed encounters used to be a regular occurrence. This is the image of Mindanao which we would like to put behind because genuine peace is now upon us,” he added.

Collaborative peace efforts

Galvez said the concerted efforts of LGUs in Mindanao, particularly those in the Tawi-Tawi, to highlight the vast eco-tourism potential of their areas “have started to pay dividends.”

He said the Sulu archipelago, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi can boast of world-class quality and pristine beaches, mangrove forests, and majestic sandbars.

“These areas also take pride in their historical attractions. In Tawi-Tawi, you have the Sheikh Makhdum Mosque built-in 1380 which is a testament to the area’s rich cultural heritage,” he said, noting that the economic activities in the BARMM have increased over the past years.

“One of which is the opening of the direct route of Philippine Airlines from Cotabato City to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. The maiden flight is scheduled to be on June 9. It is the first flight within BARMM,” he cited.

Galvez likewise attributed this turnaround to the major gains achieved under the Bangsamoro peace process, particularly in the successful implementation of Bangsamoro peace agreements.

“Under the Duterte Administration and previous administrations, the foundations of peace have been laid in Mindanao wherein sustainable development can take root. This is the legacy of peace we would like to leave behind and hopefully, be sustained by the incoming administration,” he added.

Galvez is disheartened when hearing “generalized narratives that peace and security conditions in the island region remain volatile.”

“We know that it is a cardinal rule among journalists to be fair, factual, and accurate in their reportage. It is therefore disappointing when a member of the press who professes to uphold these very same principles takes the opposite path,” Galvez said.

Galvez said Robles should visit the Mindanao areas first, before claiming unsolicited narratives about peace and order situation in the island region.

“I, therefore, invite Ms. Robles to visit Mindanao and see for herself the real peace and security situation in the island region. The visit will provide her with realities on the ground. After her visit, who knows, she may have a change in heart,” he said. (PNA)