Philippine Archbishop Backs Extension for Bangsamoro Transitional Authority

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-01-22
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Philippine Archbishop Backs Extension for Bangsamoro Transitional Authority Murad Ebrahim (center), the chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), delivers a message during an event at Malacañang Palace in Manila to mark the second anniversary of the region’s establishment, Jan. 21, 2021.
[Handout/Robinson Niñal/Presidential Photo/PCOO]

The Catholic Church’s highest official in the southern Philippines on Friday endorsed a term extension for ex-separatist leader Murad Ebrahim as head of an autonomous Muslim region.

Murad, who leads the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA), told BenarNews last month that he was lobbying to have his term extended beyond its scheduled expiry in 2022. He said he needed more time to pursue reforms hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and threats from militants linked to Islamic State.

“Elections in 2022 would simply erode whatever fragile gains the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority shall have obtained within the transition period,” Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, the archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, said in a statement.

Murad’s group might not be able to complete the reforms it had started to lift up people living within the boundaries of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM), the cardinal noted.

“The constraints of time are simply insurmountable. The BTA will surely not be able to complete its mandate within the period of transition,” he said.

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the majority-Catholic country, meanwhile has said that he supports a three-year extension for the transitional authority – till 2025 – although his aides have pointed out that Congress would first have to legislate such a move.

Archbishop Quevedo, in his statement, emphasized that the church fully supports the peace process in the southern Mindanao region. He said he was praying that Congress would approve Murad’s request.

Murad is the former chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an armed group that gave up its fight for independence in the south to lead the impoverished region, after it struck a peace deal with Manila in exchange for autonomy. Murad and the MILF today lead the transitional government that controls the autonomous region before local voters go to the polls next year to elect their own leaders.

The senior Philippine Catholic clergyman issued his statement a day after MILF commemorated the second anniversary of the autonomous region’s founding.

On Thursday President Duterte appeared at a small ceremony at the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila, where Murad presented a report on the transitional authority’s accomplishments.

Duterte said that Murad had shown “exemplary leadership” in implementing a host of reforms during the past two years, including the creation of local electoral offices and through BAT taking control of environmental regulation from the national government.

“Be assured that this administration will remain determined in its commitment to support self-determination, uphold human rights and advance social welfare in the Bangsamoro region,” Duterte said.

“Today, like the rest of the nation, the BARMM is faced with many daunting challenges aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the president said. “That is why I have given marching orders to all relevant government agencies to give full support to the BARMM through continued assistance in the region.”

Murad, 72, took over leadership of the transitional government in 2019 after residents of five provinces and a handful of neighboring districts agreed through a referendum to join the BARMM.

In his remarks at Malacañang on Thursday, Murad reported that improvements made in peace and security across the Bangsamoro region had helped boost the confidence of investors and traders.

“It is important to constantly remind ourselves that what we achieved so far is founded on the blood, sweat, and tears of our brethren, our mujahedeen, as well as the people and communities who went through so much pain and suffering for the sake of our struggle,” Murad said.

“Two years ago, we began crafting the next chapter of the Bangsamoro but the story is not yet over and we still have more to do. With the challenges brought by the pandemic along with the massive changes in the bureaucracy, time is really of the essence,” he added.

But contrary to Murad’s claims about improvements to regional security, the MILF leadership faces a fractured militant movement with backing from international movements, according to Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department at Ateneo De Davao University in Davao City.

He cited back-to-back bombings on southern Jolo Island that were blamed on the Abu Sayyaf, a smaller militant group with links to Islamic State (IS). An Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, led hundreds of foreign militants in taking over the southern city of Marawi during five months in 2017.

“There are groups who wanted to disrupt peace and order. We expect that because the transition is not yet over,” Beleno told BenarNews.

Suspected militant slain

In other regional news, a suspected Abu Sayyaf militant who was wanted for involvement in the kidnapping of five Indonesian fishermen by the group last year was killed during a clash Thursday with government troops on Tawi-Tawi, an island in the far southern Philippines, officials said.

The suspect, identified as Riyadzkan Maulana, was shot and killed by a joint team of Marines and police in a counter-narcotics sting operation, the military said.

Maulana was a member off an Abu Sayyaf gang specializing in kidnappings and led by mid-level leaders Salip Murah Asgali and Majan Sahijuan (alias Apo Mike), who are both also wanted by authorities in the nearby Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.

A BenarNews correspondent contributed to this report from Zamboanga City, Philippines.

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