Don’t build a mall in a minefield

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

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.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net.

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7 Comments

  1. The solution was done by Erap. One can only negotiate from a position of Strength ! That has been always the law of the human-world.

  2. Perhaps government is so focused on political-military solution. Why not try a mini-Marshall Plan like development free from politics and intervention from abroad.
    Let AFP and PNP take care of peace and order but non-politician and business people implement the development. The immediate concern is introduce infrastructure the benefit of which can be felt by residents right away. If development must start from center of population where there is relative peace and security going to more inland locations so be it. Involve all armed groups provided they surrender their arms if their interest is really well being of their people they have no reason to refuse. Otherwise they are only interested in grabbing power and territory. Mindanao deserves development comparable to Luzon and the Visayas. Time is of the essence. For so long politicians and armed groups stunted its growth.

  3. Ben, I agree the climate for business in the PH is not an inviting one. The terrorists in the south will prevent businesses from venturing there. The red tape and graft will keep others out. Businesses are just like people. They need safety. Right now law and order does not prevail in the PH. The recent massacre where police were killed by armed gangs will reinforce the business decision to stay out of the PH.

  4. In the 60’s & 70’s I use to work in Mindanao including Sulu. Back thenit seems so peacful that only smugglers like Ping Kay Soon are like masters.Goods from the Phils are being smuggled to Sabah (cooking oil,rice,soft drinks even the occasional alcoholic ones) Sabah at the time is like a backwater and only tan bark is brought back to the Phils as the raw material for making tuba. Now it is the reverse, Sabah is very progressive and the southern Phils is a chaotic place with poverty and killing everywhere.Both places have the same potential rich natural resources,same climate but Sabah have a stable,safe environment which in the south are missing.So where will investors go?

  5. Dominador D. Canastra on

    How could these foreigners be so naive? They were all being hoodwinked by the MILF leaders and their patron the government of Malaysia–whose interest is to make sure that the legal sovereign rights of the Philippines/Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo ober Sabah are not pursued. THe peace treaty with th MNLF was adequae enugh. It shold have been urtured patiently by the Phil Govt and aided by the internatinal committee. But the foolish governments Macapagal-Arroyo and now PNoy Aquino sided wtih Malaysia against the MNLF and Nur Misuari. Gi-gabaan na mong tanan. Unfortunately the rest of the Philippines is affected too.

  6. back in the 1960’s people told me that in less than 12 months after applying for an immigrant visa America, the applicant was called for the visa issuance, but hardly anyone applied because mr. and mrs. juan dela cruz preferred the philippines.

    now with all the self inflicted problems in the philippines, only the elite along with their cats and dogs, and the old and dying will be left.

    then the elite will have to import workers from china to wash their clothes and raise their children.

  7. If you want to know what will happen to the Bangsamoro if it ever becomes a reality, just look at Libya today. Libya is the best example of what a place looks like when thugs are the ones in charge. Who wants to invest in Libya?