It is the dawn of a “new era of peace”. The Bangsamoro armed struggle in Mindanao has come to an end. The conflict between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has gone through different phases of the peace process and has culminated in the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). As a legal document incorporating the agreements, its ratification through the January 2019 referendums brought forth the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The establishment of the new political entity marked the transfer of administrative powers from the GPH to the MILF-led interim government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), and along with it, renewed the optimism for peace and development in the region.
This historical milestone was welcomed with enthusiasm and celebration in the Southern Philippine region that has been ravaged by decades-long underdevelopment and conflict. The region has consistently ranked poorly in development indexes in the Philippines. Infrastructure is subpar, basic services are inadequate, and social welfare is deficient, if any. Weak local governance and ineptness of state apparatuses had allowed conflict to flourish. Parts of the region remain heavily militarized amid horizontal conflicts such as clan feuds and shadow economies. Insecurity continues to exist in areas where the state has no control of, resulting to fragility and high levels of violence.
It is against this immediate post-conflict politic-economic backdrop that the new administration confronted the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barely a year after its inauguration, BARMM faced the threat of a global outbreak. The first COVID-positive case in BARMM was documented on March 18. By May 26, the region of over five million people listed twenty-three confirmed cases – thirteen from Maguindanao, nine in Lanao del Sur, and one from Sulu. Of those confirmed, there are twelve active cases, four deaths, and seven recoveries.
BARMM’s strategy during the early wave of the pandemic was to contain the outbreak. Quarantine measures set by the national government’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) in Metro Manila were replicated throughout the region. Additional policies fitting the predominantly Muslim constituency, such as suspension of Friday prayers and prohibition of mass gatherings despite the observance of the holy month of Ramadan, were also implemented.
After the Philippine President’s declaration of the country under a Public Health Emergency, BARMM formed its regional IATF and released P1.9 billion (€34.3 million) worth of funds for COVID-response. This includes allotting P155 million (€2.79 million) to its constituent local government units (LGUs) as quick response funds, facilitating massive relief operations, turning over medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, and equipping COVID-19 referral hospitals across the region. One of the referral hospitals, Cotabato Regional Medical Center (CRMC), received P14.1 million from the BARMM government for the procurement of diagnostic tests laboratory equipment and staff training and is now an accredited COVID-19 testing laboratory.
BARMM employed a “whole-of-government” approach in its response to the pandemic. Convergence of efforts among LGUs, line agencies, and different sectors of the community gave rise to innovative solutions such as Lanao del Sur’s use of digital thematic overlay maps to monitor and track the disease and Maguindanao’s refurnishing of a neglected medical facility into a COVID-19 isolation center. More quarantine facilities for repatriated overseas Filipino workers had also been opened across the region.
Despite these efforts, the over-all situation in the Bangsamoro relative to the onset of the pandemic remain bleak and concerning.
In as much as COVID-19 is a global concern, perception of its gravity vary greatly among the populace. In some areas, locals vocally dismissed the threats of the disease. For instance, Friday prayers still continued in some areas despite the BARMM government’s calls for its suspension and some constituents refused to cooperate in contact tracing. Given the military presence in the conflict-affected areas of BARMM, the national government’s imposition of COVID-mitigating actions like community quarantines and lockdowns are nothing new. As such, violent incidences continue as clan wars reignite in North Cotabato and members of non-state armed groups regularly harass quarantine checkpoints and police outposts in Maguindanao. The fact that horizontal conflicts remain prevalent indicate the indifference of the affected constituency to the threats of the pandemic.
These instances highlight the challenge to the new government. Apart from obvious security concerns, the situation exacerbates humanitarian issues. Displacement brought by conflicts will eventually aggravate pandemic-related concerns. Lack of social distancing in evacuation centers will increase the risk of contagion. It goes the other way around, as well. For instance, displaced residents of Marawi, a city affected by large-scale conflict in 2017, noted that the pandemic worsened the living conditions of the displaced. Checkpoints and quarantine measures not only affected livelihood but have also grounded humanitarian assistance for the vulnerable. The overall situation shows that the challenge of COVID-19 is not in it being a cause but rather as a catalyst in aggravating pervasive problems in the Bangsamoro.
It is undeniable that the pandemic and the long-existing local governance- and conflict-related issues will impact service delivery of the new administration, but the current situation also opens up an opportunity for the BARMM to rise to the challenge and reinforce their platform of “moral governance”. As such, it is imperative for the new government to continue working closely with its LGUs. Establishing a good working relationship and encouraging collaborative efforts help address challenges promptly, as evidenced by the amicable partnership between the region and the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in their response to COVID-19.
Amid the current context, one may say that the COVID-19 pandemic is the BARMM government's trial by fire. The success of their response, in contrast to the national government’s experience, will validate the call for autonomy and decentralization that the MILF has long fought for. If done right, this will set forth a positive narrative that is much needed should they wish to sustain their leadership after the transition period following the 2022 Parliamentary elections.
 Abinales, P. N. (2000) Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
 Torres, W. M. (2014) Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
 Strachan, A.L. (2015). Conflict analysis of Muslim Mindanao. (Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK:
GSDRC, University of Birmingham.