It was not the least bit surprising, but disappointing nonetheless: earlier this week in an interview with AFP, the president of the Bangsamoro Business Club said that at least three foreign firms have suspended their planned investments in the region in the wake of the recent massacre in Maguindanao.
According to BBC president Mohamad Omar Pasigan, the three unnamed groups were some Jordanians planning to invest in banana farming, and Singaporean and Malaysian groups interested in hotels and retail in and around Cotabato City. Pasigan lamented that the lost investments are probably worth “billions” of pesos.
The problem is most likely much worse than Pasigan is letting on or realizes. I talked to five different Filipino companies which have recently disclosed plans for expansion or other investment in Mindanao, and three of them have either already paused their activities or are seriously considering doing so; of those, only one actually has plans in the Bangsamoro region.
How representative a half-dozen anecdotes might be of the overall investment atmosphere is difficult to say, but that even a few potential domestic and foreign investors have decided to put their checkbooks back in their pockets for the time being shows that the Mamasapano Massacre did have some immediate negative impact.
The government and the dwindling number of supporters who share its view that the Bangsamoro Basic Law must be hurried through Congress to prevent any more tragic “misencounters” can now add, “If we don’t pass the BBL as soon as possible, it will drive away investment” to their list of specious excuses for not taking current events seriously. Of course, the argument in favor of the BBL won’t be any more effective as a result, but at least it will sound as though some actual thought was behind it.
Yes, everybody knows that Mindanao is a big place, and that the tribulations of the “Muslim areas” – which is how everyone outside those areas refers to them – are not necessarily problems elsewhere. Yet there is still a tendency to consider Mindanao a single destination, rather than a broad geographic area comprising many smaller regions with different characteristics.
In half a century or more of conflict in Mindanao, efforts towards peace have been disappointing and ultimately unsuccessful because the government has never quite come to grips with the complexity of the conflict. Muslim separatists only account for a stanza or two in Mindanao’s symphony of pain; in the unlikely event that the Philippines is able to achieve a fair peace with them, that still leaves unresolved issues with the Communists, the indigenous communities, non-Muslim citizens of Muslim areas, Muslim citizens of non-Muslim areas, assorted criminal gangs, and literally thousands of political warlords. All of these things are connected to each other in some way, and so a real, sustainable peace is not going to be achieved without somehow including all of them.
Progress in one area, if not sufficiently inclusive, often leads to more trouble in other areas, but on the whole, one Muslim businessman from Pagadian City told me, most businesses were at least cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro being formally enacted through the BBL. “We were already seeing signs of things calming down,” he said. “I don’t think any of us, at least in our business community here, thought that it [the peace agreement with the MILF]would solve everything, but we were still happy about it, because it was a good start.”
The lopsided battle in Mamasapano, however, has extinguished that enthusiasm for now. “Personally, I support the peace treaty and what the MILF is trying to do,” the businessman explained. “But there are too many questions now. The government’s part . . . well, that’s just a complete mess, but the questions I think worry us more are about the MILF, and can it handle the job of governing. The Bangsamoro arrangement was supposed to put an end to having these side groups and terrorists operating freely, and it didn’t help with that at all.”
“I think that’s the real problem,” he added. “If those terrorists hadn’t been there, none of this would have happened.”
On a positive note, nobody I talked to was considering dropping their Mindanao plans entirely; the general mood seems to be that perhaps the mess is so bad now that the concerned parties will be shocked into making a worthwhile effort towards peace, and that eventually some progress will be made. But right now nobody is betting on that happening. Nobody wants to build a mall in what may turn out to be a minefield.