BARMM Transition in the Midst of COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jeshamar C. Villasis, MPA, and Atty. Dion Lorenz L. Romano
05 August 2020

 

BARMM was established and ratified last 25 January 2019 and has two more years to complete through the transition phase. Yet, in the middle of the transition, a big challenge confronts the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) as it abruptly shifted its efforts to deal with the serious threat and more urgent threat on public health, the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was on 29 January 2020 that the first positive case of COVID-19 was recorded in the Philippines. The President declared a State of Calamity throughout the country in 16 March 2020 after reports of continuing local transmission of the virus[i]. Local governments outside of Metro Manila were also given the authority to implement measures to manage the health situation. The BTA placed several areas in BARMM in varying modes of community quarantine[ii]. With this shift in focus, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the people’s lives and the transition priorities in BARMM. Indeed, the public health crisis became a test of effective leadership in this most challenging time of the transition period in BARMM. For BTA, the pandemic would imply a delay in BARMM’s transition to better self-governance and a momentarily derailment of its 12-point agenda.

In this piece we present the additional challenges brought about by the pandemic and how the current BTA has been dealing with such an emergency. At the latter section of the piece, we also propose some recommendations moving forward to ensure that delays in the transition would be mitigated by agile and effective governance, triggering the importance of intergovernmental relations body between the national government and the Bangsamoro government for seamless coordination and cooperation.

 

COVID-19 Challenging the Transition

Delay in Completing BARMM Priorities

The BOL outlines the functions of the BTA, and upon the constitution of the BTA officials, it has set a clear priority agenda to accomplish throughout the transition period. Article XVI, Section 4 of the law mandates the BTA to prioritize seven legislations namely: (i) the Bangsamoro Administrative Code, (ii) Revenue Code, (iii) Electoral Code, (iv) Local Government Code, (v) Education Code, (vi) Civil Service Code and (vii) Indigenous Peoples Code; and to organize its bureaucracy accordingly. BTA has also identified in its 12-point agenda the priority measures it will take to ensure smooth transition. For this purpose, the BTA has targeted for the priority legislations to be approved by the Parliament before the end of 2019 in order for them to roll-out implementation in 2020[iii].

Before the declaration of Public Health Emergency in the country, BTA announced that the Ministry of Basic Higher and Technical Education (MBHTE) and Ministry of Interior and Local Government (MILG) were doing their “final touches” on the draft Education and Local Government Codes respectively[iv]. However, the BTA is yet to inform the public on the status of the other five codes. With the quarantine restrictions due to COVID-19, Members of Parliament were impeded from accomplishing their legislative agenda. Online meetings have been a challenge as some officers are staying in island provinces where there is no stable internet connection.

The community quarantine also affected the decommissioning process of MILF forces. MILG Minister Naguib Sinarimbo shared that 140 decommissioned MILF cannot go home to Sulu because they were trapped in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat[v]. The decommissioning is an important normalization activity. It enables the establishment of the foundations for peace and inclusive governance in BARMM.  In the decommissioning, former combatants are given financial assistance through the Bangsamoro Transitory Family Support Package (BTFS) and the Livelihood Settlement Grant (LSG) being implemented by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)[vi].  Other kinds of assistance, such as healthcare and scholarship, are also given to their families[vii]. This means a lot not only for former combatants to lay down their arms and start a new life, but for BTA officers as well that have been tasked to ensure smooth transition. Delaying the decommissioning may also affect the funds allocated for such purpose.

Another priority of the BTA is the reorganization of the bureaucracy. This entails phasing out of offices and institutions under the defunct ARMMM. Initially, the BTA planned to fully organize itself by December 2019[viii] but Minister Sinarimbo updated that though the BTA has already separated employees, it is still on the process of arranging the bureaucracy for the transitional government[ix]. With the suspension of work due to the imposed quarantine, hiring of staff has also been put on halt. Following the order to operate with a skeleton staff, the Ministries have to focus more on the delivery of essential services to address the current pandemic situation in the region rather than building the bureaucracy.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Agrarian Reform (MAFAR) is still in the process of releasing separation pays[x]. The MBHTE has temporarily postponed the Cease and Desist Order of provisional teachers and employees under temporary status to May 31, 2020[xi]. These administrative concerns add up to the anxiety faced by separated employees in this time of crisis.

 

Possible Realignment of Funds

Last 5 February 2020, the BTA received the first tranche of its ₱63.6-B block grant. The initial ₱5.3B would only cover for the “programs and projects for the month of January, including the salary of BARMM employees”, according to Assistant Executive Secretary Abdullah Cusain[xii]. This first tranche may be enough to still address the impact of COVID-19, BTA Parliament Minority Leader Atty. Laisa Alamia noted. Funds from the BARMM-READI (Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence) under MILG, Workers Welfare Program under the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE), trade and industry promotion and development program under the Ministry of Trade, Investment and Tourism (MTIT), and contingent funds under the Office of the Chief Minister (OCM) can be also be utilized[xiii]. The National Government also released the Bayanihan Grant to Cities and Municipalities, allotting ₱1.3B for BARMM, which can support the COVID-19-related initiatives such as procurement of personal protective equipment and testing kits[xiv]. As of April 30, BARMM-IATF announced that it has released ₱1.9B worth of funds in addressing the impact of the health crisis. Based on its breakdown, ₱155M was spent from the augmentation given by the National Government.

Although BARMM has been placed under Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) last 1 June 2020, the BTA should not be complacent about the situation. COVID-19 remains to be a threat, and its impact should not be ignored. The apprehension of Minister Sinarimbo about the possible realignment of funds to COVID-19-related programs may still be valid, as the health crisis highlighted the development areas and sectors that should be prioritized. For transparency and to negate speculations on the utilization of funds, the BTA should issue a fiscal report, reflecting the initial programs planned by BTA for its transition and the necessary adjustments to address the pandemic.

 

Continuous Violence and Armed Conflicts

Even before COVID-19, armed conflicts already exist in the region. However, reports of violence continue even with strict community quarantine measures. Since March 2020, armed disputes and clan feuds have displaced more than 3,300 families in the region[xv]. The fight between the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and some Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members, the Abu Sayyaf group and other unidentified non-state armed groups also ensued.  These persisting hostilities have forced families to leave their homes and evacuate momentarily to government centers and informal camps, but the situation in evacuation areas is also problematic. For instance, two to three families would share in a bunk house, and 70 individuals would share a common toilet, not to mention the limited handwashing and bathing facilities[xvi]. Internally displaced families would temporarily return to their homes to get food and attend to their livelihood, and then return to the evacuation centers to seek refuge.

COVID-19 and the continuous armed struggle in the region further highlight the challenges of healthcare system in the region. According to the baseline study by Oxfam in 2019 in selected areas in Maguindanao, it was found out that aside from the distance of the hospitals and health care practitioners, 91% of indigenous internally displaced people (IDPs) did not seek medical services due to high insecurity in their area[xvii]. This is the same reason that medical practitioners would be hesitant to be assigned in these areas.

BARMM Government promises to bring “the necessary conditions for enduring peace and sustained socio-economic development” for its people[xviii]. For years, poverty, inequality, among other complexities, may be rooted from the existence of armed conflicts. Development has been hampered due to constant damages in public and personal investments, and disruption in the productivity of people. The health crisis, happening in the midst of BARMM transition brings urgency among leaders to solve these complexities.

 

BTA Responding to COVID-19

  1. Policies and Initiatives to Address COVID-19

Despite the tremendous task of completing the transition work, BTA was able to ensure that COVID-19 in BARMM is under control. When first recorded case in the Philippines was reported, MILG promulgated policies to handle the health situation. LGUs were advised to activate the Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs) and  monitor the supply and price of goods and produce. BTA has also set up its own Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on COVID-19 to craft policies and formulate practical measures to respond to the impact of the temporary economic closure in the region.

BTA employs a coordinated approach in addressing the health crisis by involving key offices in the BARMM-IATF. Aside from the various Ministries, the Police Regional Office (PRO) – BARMM, Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), OPAPP – Cotabato City, and Office of the Civil Defense (OCD) – BARMM were added to the BARMM-IATF. The inclusion of these organizations sought to streamline the process in terms of response and delivery of services. WestMinCom, for instance, assisted in bringing relief goods to Mapun, Tawi-Tawi, a far island municipality that is closer to Sabah, Malaysia. BTA also tapped its existing unit on disaster management, BARMM-READI, to utilize its Operations Center to monitor the COVID-19 situation in the region. Other Ministries also did their part to manage the health crisis. For example, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Energy (MENRE) provided technical assistance to LGUs on environmental sanitation, such as proper disinfection of public spaces and disposal of PPEs, and led in massive planting in forestland areas as part of BTA’s food security plan.

To make up for the inadequacies of the health care system, BTA downloaded ₱2M financial assistance to its Integrated Provincial Health Offices for procurement of medical supplies, allowances of medical personnel and monitoring of persons under monitoring (PUMs) and persons under investigation (PUIs). Public hospitals in BARMM received necessary equipment from MOH, and BTA allocated ₱14M to Cotabato Regional Medical Center (CRMC) for it to become the region’s first COVID-19 testing facility. COVID-19 patients, on the other hand, are supported by BTA’s Ayudang Medikal Mula sa Bangsamoro (AMBAG) Program. Their medical expenses in public hospitals will be shouldered through the program.

BTA also ensured that the crisis would not aggravate food security in the region. LGUs included vegetables and dressed chickens in the relief goods they provided for their constituents, which provided additional income for local farmers as well. MAFAR continuously provided farm inputs to farmers, while MENRE launches its Kayud Ka, Bangsamoro (KKB) advocacy that promotes sustainable vegetable gardening among households. These are initiatives that should go beyond the COVID-19 crisis, and be included in the BTA transition plan.

  1. Ministries Continue with Service Delivery Beyond COVID-19

In the midst of the virus’ threat, Ministries managed to implement their programs and projects that are not initially planned as COVID-19 response but complemented just as well.

MAFAR, as already mentioned previously, continued providing farm implements to their local farmers to secure the food supply of the region. It may originally have been planned to augment farmers’ livelihood and to ensure enough supply of produce but it proved to be essential in this time of crisis. MOH, on the other hand, welcomed the new set of community midwives from Maguindanao who will be assigned in different parts of BARMM[xix]. MILG has also launched its “41 Programs” last May 14 showing its “commitment to professionalizing local leadership and governance, thus promoting a more resilient and progressive Bangsamoro community”[xx]. The program includes capacity building and skills trainings (i.e. Internal Leverage for Employee’s Advancement & Development and Retooling Program for Senior LGOOs), good governance mechanisms (i.e. Child-Friendly Local Governance Audit and Barangay Governance Performance Management System), to infrastructure programs (i.e. rehabilitation of jail facilities and barangay halls). These programs should not only serve the purpose of the BARMM transition, but more importantly, the transition to the “new normal”. In the implementation plan for each program, MILG should take into account the learnings gained from this health crisis.

  1. Established Partnership with Private Sector

Collaborating with the private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) is a key component in the BARMM transition plan. They play a crucial role in ensuring “a more competent and assertive regional authority centered more around respect for institutional rules and processes than personal politics”[xxi]. Aside from the technical expertise they have in community building, the CSOs are viewed to be objective in their work which makes them effective in managing stakeholder discussions with “diverse views and interests connected”, enabling collective action[xxii].

A handful of development partners have been helping out Muslim Mindanao even before the signing of the BOL. Their assistance to BARMM proved to be productive and helpful in this time of crisis. For example, International Alert Philippines (IAP) helped in creating advanced maps that initially show spatial features of LGU boundaries and conflict flashpoints, among others. During this crisis, it has been used to plot emerging cases of COVID-19. Another organization, World Food Programme (WFP) developed SCOPE, a web-based application used for beneficiary registrations, intervention set-ups, distribution planning, transfers, and reporting. SCOPE is being used by MSSD in cash payouts for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), and it has been utilized to distribute financial assistance under the Social Amelioration Program. UNICEF’s U-Report, an online platform initially intended to gather insights and concerns of the youth, has been used to disseminate information about COVID-19. Other non-profit organizations such as the Health Organization for Mindanao, also provided technical assistance, through online conference calls, to MSSD and MOH on psychological first aid.

In the COVID-19 contingency plan crafted by BTA, they have included international NGOs and other private donor institutions as possible sources of assistance for their initiatives, according to Minister Sinarimbo[xxiii]. This shows BTA’s recognition of the vital role of these organizations in executing their programs for the people. It may be good as well to involve them in the planning process not only of the contingency plan but of the “transition plan to the new normal” as well of the BTA.

 

Conclusion

Indeed, COVID-19 pandemic has brought danger and at the same time an opportunity. In the case of BARMM, the virus does not only threaten health security in the region but its entire development, particularly the critical stage of transition. The confluence of pandemic and government transition is a real deal of a challenge. What seems to be an already limited time for BARMM setting the foundations during the 3-year transition appears even more constrained now as BTA needs to address this urgent demand of health crisis. With all the efforts and initiative of the Bangsamoro Government to address the public health issues, there seems to be a mechanism that will pave the way for a better coordination and cooperation with the national government – that mechanism is inherent in the Bangsamoro government design through the Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) mechanism. The activation of the IGR body for a coordinated quick response, relief, and rehabilitation for disaster risk reduction will help smoothen the governance approach in dealing with public health crisis in the future.

Nonetheless, the BTA has proven itself “as a capable institution in the eyes of both the region’s clans and the general population”[xxiv]. The crisis has also highlighted the governance loopholes that BTA has to remedy in its transition plan. Finally, the experiences brought by COVID-19 should be taken into account by BTA as it moves BARMM into the new normal.

 


Jeshamar C. Villasis, MPA is the Executive Director of the Philippine Toy Library and a part-time Instructor at the University of Santo Tomas. She was a former Program Officer at the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines, and is currently a Part-Time Reseacher and Project Officer of Access Bangsamoro. 

Atty. Dion Lorenz L. Romano is the Program Manager of Access Bangsamoro. He was a former lawyer at the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Access Bangsamoro, its proponents, or affiliates.


 

END NOTES

[i] Malacañan Palace. (16 March 2020). Proclamation No. 929: Declaring a State of Calamity Throughout the Philippines Due to Corona Virus Disease 2019.

[ii] Ministry of the Interior and Local Government (15 March 2020). Imposition and Implementation of Community Quarantine within the Areas of Bangsamoro Region.

[iii] Ranada, P. (08 August 2019). BTA targets Bangsamoro gov’t codes by end of 2019. Retrieved from Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/nation/237363-bta-targets-bangsamoro-government-codes-end-2019

[iv] Macabalang, A. (11 March 2020). BARMM education, local gov’t codes on final draft stages. Retrieved from Manila Bulletin: https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/03/11/barmm-education-local-govt-codes-on-final-draft-stages/

[v] Sinarimbo, N. (03 April 2020). IAG Webinar Series 01: Managing and Mitigating the Threat of COVID-19.

[vi] Office of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. (18 March 2020). Decommissioning process for 12,000 MILF combatants completed. Retrieved from Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process: https://peace.gov.ph/2020/03/decommissioning-process-for-12000-milf-combatants-completed/

[vii] Cayon, M. (19 February 2020). Decommissioning of MILF fighters to continue. Retrieved from Business Mirror: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/02/19/decommissioning-of-milf-fighters-to-continue/

[viii] Macabalang, A. (11 August 2019). Bangsamoro region’s bureaucracy completed. Retrieved from Manila Bulletin: https://news.mb.com.ph/2019/08/11/bangsamoro-regions-bureaucracy-completed/

[ix] Sinarimbo, N. (03 April 2020). IAG Webinar Series 01: Managing and Mitigating the Threat of COVID-19. Retrieved from Institute for Autonomy and Governance: http://www.iag.org.ph/news/1881-iag-webinar-series-o1-managing-mitigating-the-threat-of-covid-19

[x] Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Agrarian Reform – BARMM. (27 March 2020). MAFAR to Release Separation Benefits to Former Employees [Facebook status update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=670253483801480&id=424450148381816

[xi] Iqbal, M. (27 April 2020). Cease and Desist Order of Provisional Teachers and Employees under Temporary Status to Take Effect on May 31, 2020. Bangsamoro Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education.

[xii] Business World. (11 February 2020). BARMM gets initial P5.3B under block grant. Retrieved from Business World: https://www.bworldonline.com/barmm-gets-initial-p5-3b-under-block-grant/

[xiii] Alamia, L. (09 April 2020). IAG Webinar Series 02: Policy & Program Considerations for COVID-19 Response in BARMM. Retrieved from Institute for Autonomy and Governance: http://www.iag.org.ph/news/1883-iag-webinar-series-o2-policy-program-considerations-for-covid-19-response-in-barmm

[xiv] Avisado, W. (07 April 2020). Local Budget Circular No. 125: Guidelines on the Release and Utilization of the Bayanihan Grant to Cities and Municipalities. Department of Budget and Management.

[xv] UNHCR. (March-April 2020). Mindanao Displacement Dashboard.

[xvi] Abo, N. and Ayao, A. (27 April 2020). The Compounded Threat of COVID-19 and Armed Conflict in Mindanao. Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia.

[xvii] Abo, N. and Ayao, A. (27 April 2020). The Compounded Threat of COVID-19 and Armed Conflict in Mindanao. Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia.

[xviii] Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Vision & Mission. Retrieved from https://bangsamoro.gov.ph/about-us/vision-mission/

[xix] Bureau of Public Information. (19 May 2020). BARMM appoints new set of community midwives. Retrieved from Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: https://bangsamoro.gov.ph/news/latest-news/barmm-appoints-new-set-of-community-midwives/

[xx] Bureau of Public Information. (15 May 2020). Resilient and Progressive BARMM: MILG launches ’41 Programs for LGUs. Retrieved from Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: https://bangsamoro.gov.ph/news/latest-news/resilient-and-progressive-barmm-milg-launches-41-programs-for-lgus/

[xxi] Asia Report N0306. (14 April 2020). Southern Philippines: Tackling Clan Politics in the Bangsamoro. International Crisis Group.

[xxii] Yusingco, M. (14 April 2020). Do ‘fat dynasties’ pose a risk to peace in Bangsamoro. East Asia Forum: Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific.

[xxiii] Sinarimbo, N. (03 April 2020). IAG Webinar Series 01: Managing and Mitigating the Threat of COVID-19.

[xxiv] Engelbrecht, G. (06 May 2020). Philippines: Bangsamoro, between conflict and COVID-19. The Interpreter.