Politics, World, Asia - Pacific

'Controlling bureaucracy harder than fighting in forests'

In exclusive interview, Bangsamoro leader Ebrahim says 30,000 combatants will surrender arms and join system by April

Mehmet Ozturk  | 13.03.2020 - Update : 13.03.2020
'Controlling bureaucracy harder than fighting in forests' Photo by Mehmet Ozturk (Anadolu Agency)

COTABATO, BANGSAMORO, Philippines   

A year ago, former top guerrilla commander Murad Ebrahim took over as chief minister of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim local government body of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in the southern Philippines.

Born in 1949, Murad had joined the underground movement and fought against Filipinos security forces. He was appointed chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2003. He also attained the role of the chief negotiator, when the armed group decided to join talks with the Manila government. Murad is leading the 80-member BTA, governing five-province in the Muslim majority region.

In a freewheeling and an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in his office in the city of Cotabato, capital of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, Ebrahim discussed challenges, opportunities and his transition from a guerilla commander hold a gun to a political leader dealing with bureaucrats and the files. He disclosed that as part of the second phase of the decommissioning process, 30,000 combatants will surrender more than 2000 weapons by April.

Anadolu Agency: I have a personal question. From living in forests to sitting in the office, how has your life changed?

Murad Ebrahim (ME): We face a very big challenge since we have never been in the government before. More than 40 years, we were fighting. So, the first challenge we face is office life itself. It is a challenge to transform our organization into a structure of governance. As head of a government, my life is different from what it was as head of a revolutionary organization.

The second challenge is that people have pinned high expectations on us. The biggest issue was that when we assumed office, we did not have any budget.
We are still operating on the budget of the previous administration. So, we could not start our programs. Now only in 2020, we have our own budget.

Q: You once said that if we cannot change the system, then there is no way we will succeed. So what kind of system you want to change and how?

ME: Our first move is to eradicate the evils like corruption and other wrongdoing in the system of governance. The first thing we did when we joined the government was, we advocated moral governance. And then we let our ministers and all the high officials of the government take a separate oath adhering to moral governance.

Villagers in the decision-making process

Q: What changes the Bangsamoro Organic Law which provided for the establishment of the autonomous Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, brought to the lives of Muslims living in the region.

ME: So far, we have just started. We are in the office barely less than a year from now. But we have started implementing our programs that affect the lives of people. One of these programs is we go regularly in the villages, with all the ministries and then offer our services to them on the ground. We bring all the ministers and their officials together and converge in one place and then we invite people to attend our meeting. We listen about their requirements, extend assistance, offer them services and take decisions on the spot. We are doing this regularly.

Q: It is now a year, since you are in the office, what are the negative sides to this new governance?

ME: The negative aspect was that initially when we took over, we had no budget. It was very difficult for us to operate.

Q: Do you control the whole of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM)?

ME: Yes. But some areas need to be included in the governance of Bangsamoro. We are still a transition government. By 2022, we will start our regular government. The political process is still going on.

Q: Have you established your political party?

ME: Yes. We have established a political party and named it the Justice Party. We are strengthening the political party on the ground.

Q: Are there any other political parties so far established in the region?

ME: So far there is no regional party. There are national parties, who also work in this region. In Philippine political parties are not as popular among people. Normally here people vote and support individuals.

Q: After the transition period, will you be sending your representatives to the Filipinos parliament?

ME: We have our representative in the Filipinos lower house. We call them congressmen. We continue to elect congressmen to represent us in the parliament in Manila.

Duterte’s idea of federal structure helpful

Q: I heard, but I am not sure that Filipinos President Rodrigo Duterte is proposing a federal structure in the country. What's your view?

ME: We support the idea. For us, we see that would be more advantageous to us. Because if the Philippines turn into federal, then the Bangsamoro will become one of the states. That will give us more powers, even though we still autonomous. But once we are in a federal structure, it will increase our power and a say in governance. People are supporting the idea. But there is opposition in the upper house of parliament or senate. And those politicians hailing from the central part of the Philippine are opposing. They were used to control the entire country and they do not want to devolve power to states.

Q: As head of the transition government, how is your relationship with the administration of President Duterte? Do you experience any problems?

ME: President is very supportive. He instructs his cabinet to support us. So far, the only problem is addressing the needs of our people for want of the budget.

Q: People have a lot of expectations from your government as you said. What is your road map to meet such high expectations, so that people do not get disappointed? Because you mentioned the lack of budgetary support.

ME: Actually, we are trying our best to mobilize resources and to seek help from the international community as well. We are in touch with countries that helped us in the peace process like Turkey and Malaysia. Other countries like Japan also have been helping us. They helped us to engage in politics. They have been helping especially in infrastructure projects.
So, we hope that the international community will continue to support us in the transition and development of the region as well.

Convincing splinter groups to join the government

Q: What are the challenges in seeking foreign investments?

ME: Many international players are interested to come and invest in our region. We need to ensure that the peace and order remains. There were some small problems in some isolated parts. There is much reduction in violence now. We are trying to strengthen our security system and at the same time opening a dialogue with those indulging in violence. We are offering them a chance to join the government.

Q: Which are these splinter groups, who continue to oppose you and your agreement with Manila? How do you convince them?

ME: Many of them have already joined us. We have been receiving communication from others that they are also willing to join.

Q: Can you name the group which is opposing you?

ME: It is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom group. They split from us. They are also divided into three factions. Two of them are talking with us. One is left out.

Q: What is the demand of the group that is left out?

ME: They say they want an independent Islamic state. For us what is important is to implement Islamic teachings and turn Bangsamoro a true welfare region for its people. We implement moral governance that is based on the teachings of Islam. What is important is to follow the guidance of Islam.

Q: How serious is the threat of the Daesh/ISIS in your region.

ME: They are not very active now. Some time ago, yes, they were active. Now we see that they have been considerably weakened in the Middle East and other areas as well. We found some foreigners, Indonesian and a small number of Malaysians were here. We did not find any other nationalities.

Decommissioning process heading smoothly

Q: What is the progress of the decommissioning process? How many arms so far have been surrendered by the erstwhile fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)?

ME: We are in the second phase of the decommissioning process. It involves the mainstreaming of 30,000 combatants and surrendering of more than 2000 weapons. The process has already begun and will complete by the first week of April. The head of the International Decommissioning Body (IDB) is a senior Turkish diplomat. There are three phases of this process. That means one-third of combatants will be submitting weapons and joining us in the mainstream by April.

Q: Turkey plays an important role during the negotiation process. So, in which sectors Turkish investors and the Turkish government should invest to help?

ME: We look for investments and help. We plan to develop agriculture and seek more investments in this sector.

Q: I started with a personal question, I am ending also with a personal question. What is more difficult, controlling bureaucracy or regulating armed activists?

ME: Controlling bureaucracy is more challenging because you have to manage not only your bureaucracy but the aspirations of the entire population. So, it is more challenging. But then fighting in forests and heading a revolutionary organization is also a very difficult task. But, I felt running a government, where people have pinned a lot of expectations is more difficult rather running a revolutionary organization.

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