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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A long-overdue wake-up call

Kris-Crossing Mindanao
A long-overdue wake-up call

By Noralyn Mustafa
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:22:00 04/28/2008

MANILA, Philippines - The province of Sulu, according to the Poverty Map 2007 prepared by the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF), is one of the three poorest provinces—Number 2 on the list—of the country. The others are Northern Samar and Masbate.

Ranked according to the PEF Development Index based on government poverty indicators, these three provinces show the “most pronounced conditions of poverty among all the provinces in the country,” the study says.

In fourth and sixth places are the provinces of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, which means that three out of the six provinces comprising the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao are in the country’s poorhouse.

It will also be noted that all are island provinces, separated from mainland Mindanao where the three other ARMM provinces (and the seat of government) are located, by the land mass of the Zamboanga Peninsula.

Most significantly, these three provinces are host to the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom and terrorist group and their ideological twin, the Jemaah Islamiya, who come and go through this so-called “backdoor” with the nonchalance of tourists with fake passports.

And of course, these three are also the provinces where the usual “hotspots” in almost every election are located, although the mainland province of Maguindanao is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s favorite place for electoral miracles.

Yet these are some of the most richly endowed islands in the entire country, in terms of fertile lands, marine resources, inland water sources and a congenial climate almost free from extreme weather disturbances.

Most of these provinces have an incredible resource of hardworking, creative and intelligent people willing to make the needed sacrifices to attain better lives, whose ultimate status symbol is a child with a college degree.

But this is not the place and the time to call in the Greek chorus to sing the lament of centuries.

In the urgency of the global food crisis and a fraudulent government exploiting the life-and-death realities of hunger and poverty to the fullest to divert attention from its multi-billion-peso scams and scandals and its criminal bartering of our sovereignty for 30 million pieces of silver, there is no time for tears and gnashing of teeth.

As things stand now, there are no lines yet forming here for NFA rice, but given the Arroyo administration’s ruthless propensity for sneaking from behind and exploding a bomb in our faces, perfectly timed for whatever it wants to cover up, we can never tell.

As far as I know I have not yet in my lifetime witnessed in any of these three provinces the kind of starvation I have seen in other places in the country I have visited. Even the poorest of the poor here do manage to have something to eat.

But these island provinces need a food crisis like a hole in the head.

It is to the interest of the entire country to look deeply into the PEF report and for both the national and local governments and all stakeholders to use its data in formulating a truly comprehensive program of action, free from the time restrictions of elective terms and political tenures.

It should be a program that will not depend on government dole-outs and the seasonal manna from political patronage nor—not in the long term anyway—on foreign funding agencies, however well-meaning.

Because the tragic and best-kept secret of these three provinces is that not only can they survive the present crisis, they can be self-sufficient on their own, by simply exploiting their own human and natural resources with a modicum of vision and a well thought-out plan that needs only committed leadership to translate to reality.

The PEF report is correct in concluding that the sorry state of these three provinces is a direct consequence of peace and order conditions. No plan, however brilliantly conceived, can even take off unless this festering decades-old problem is first diminished.

And this primordial objective is the one that should test the political will of both the national and local government officials and the resolve of law enforcement agencies who should be jolted from the lethargy of being the praetorian guards of Ms. Arroyo and her family commanded by a general who would assure us that “we can defend the Spratlys, but the question is can we win?”

With such a question posed by an Armed Forces chief marching to a war that so far exists only in the mind of Ms. Arroyo’s justice secretary, what can we hope for in the clear and present war against the Abu Sayyaf and other lawless armed groups that are the cause of our miseries?

Which is why the recent revival of the issue of Charter change towards federalism is hope on the horizon, especially at this time when Ms. Arroyo and her hated administration are on the way out—they really have to go—with no reason on earth for them to be lamented.

But while we still have to suffer their life-threatening presence, Ms. Arroyo should be well-advised to stop aping the fatal formula of the world’s most hated demagogues: “keep them hungry, keep them ignorant, keep them terrified.”

Even her scene-stealing of Erap’s gift-giving sorties to “masa” communities with her thoroughly pretentious placements of cheap rice outlets for “the poorest of the poor” (and military and police commissaries) can get to her head. We know what happened to Marie Antoinette.

And in the meantime, while the Senate is working out the details of the envisioned change of the Constitution, she must let go and keep her hands off the forthcoming ARMM elections.

It won’t be worth it, believe me.