AT a nondescript two-storey building in the town of Sultan Kudarat, the future of the Philippines’ strife-torn southern region of Mindanao is taking shape, one accountancy class at a time.
Dozens of former fighters in Mindanao’s decades-old Islamic insurgency are learning new skills — from book-keeping, to computer literacy and law — that are crucial to the long-term success of a landmark peace deal signed in Manila on Monday.
“Every student comes out of this institute as a new person,” said Zamin Unti, a 55-year-old former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel who teaches three-day crash courses at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute.
Turning fighters into laptop-wielding administrators of the new autonomous Bangsamoro region is one of the challenges facing Mindanao as it moves beyond euphoria over the deal, which ends a four-decade Muslim insurgency that killed 120,000 people in Asia’s biggest Catholic nation.
Investors will also need to be convinced that governance will improve in an area scarred by corruption and poverty.
Ravaged by conflict, the southernmost of the main Philippine islands has never been able to capitalize on an estimated $ 312 billion in mineral wealth or develop abundant agricultural land that already supplies two-fifths of the country’s food. It lies near Malaysia and Indonesia and is flanked by the rich fishing grounds of the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea, with the Pacific Ocean to its east.
Businesses are eager to enter Mindanao as the Philippines savors its biggest investment boom since the 1997 Asian financial crisis with President Benigno Aquino riding a strong economy and lofty popularity ratings. But many are holding back until prospects for a sustainable peace become clearer.
What also makes investors cautious is a series of past agreements between the government in Manila and rebels from the Moro tribes that rapidly fell apart, including a 2008 deal struck down by the Supreme Court and which led to a surge in violence. A peace deal in 1996 looked good on paper but failed due to weak implementation.
“I don’t think they are going to rush in,” said Gregory Edwards, managing director of Australia’s RED 5 Limited , which operates the Siana gold mine in Mindanao’s Surigao del Norte province.
“The security angle alone is not going to do it, there’s going to be other elements, but it certainly helps,” he said, adding investors would look at issues such as regulation and corruption before committing to projects in Mindanao.
Government negotiators say the peace process in Northern Ireland was a model for ending the Mindanao conflict. If so, they will know that persuading the Irish Republican Army to lay down its guns was one of the thorniest barriers to peace.
It could be an even harder proposition in Mindanao, which is saturated with guns held by breakaway Islamic factions, feuding clans and Communist rebels waging their own insurgency.
“We are not ready yet to surrender our guns because there are too many weapons out there in the hands of even ordinary farmers,” Commander Abdul, a 50-year-old guerrilla, told Reuters while manning a checkpoint leading to a rebel base.
While a “transition commission” has until 2015 to present a final law to Congress, the two sides only have until December to iron out details such as the new administration’s fiscal and legal powers, and the decommissioning of the MILF’s weapons.
Much rests on Aquino’s ability to control Congress, where his allies now dominate both houses, but mid-term elections next May could upset the favorable political balance.
Posters and placards supporting the peace deal have sprouted all over Cotabato City, the region’s economic hub where nearly half of the residents are non-Muslims, including ethnic Chinese Filipinos. Even skeptics here say they want to give the MILF a chance, but some are nervous.
The current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) — with a population of about 4 million — is a glaring example of how the region’s hopes for peace have been dashed in the past.
Put in place in 1989, the autonomous government never lived up to its promise. Graft flourished, development stagnated and its leaders complained of a lack of resources and political backing from Manila as the MILF kept up its separatist fight.
Around two-fifths of Mindanao’s population lives on about a dollar a day and the ARMM is home to several of the country’s poorest provinces.
Mindanao has no lack of economic potential. Besides farmland, its mineral reserves account for about two-fifths of total reserves in the Philippines, and includes gold, copper, nickel, iron, chromite and manganese.
Companies with operations there such as miners and food processor Del Monte Pacific Limited say they are considering expanding after the peace deal.
Del Monte’s 700,000-tonne, 85-year-old pineapple processing facility in Bukidnon province supplies about a fifth of the world’s processed pineapple. The company also owns a port and a nearby 23,000-hectare plantation.