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Japan, U.N. help stabilize war-torn region in southern Philippines

Tom Abke

Japan is helping the Philippines spur development, reduce poverty and promote lasting peace in the war-torn Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the southern Philippines. Among other initiatives, Japan is sponsoring a program to reduce the number of small arms and light weapons. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides logistical support.  

The BARMM was established in early 2019 after years of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and autonomist factions, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The factions battled the government for decades before a 2014 settlement. The region includes Marawi, which the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group held under siege for five months in 2017 before government forces liberated the city in a battle that caused heavy damage.

“The government of the Philippines wants the BARMM to succeed,” retired Philippine Navy Rear Adm. Rommel Jude Ong told FORUM. “The desired end state is to capacitate local leaders, including those formerly associated with the armed groups, to govern the autonomous region.”

Ong said assistance provided by foreign partners such as Japan and the UNDP is crucial because it expands stakeholders’ experience in governance, offers resources and is rendered by unbiased contributors.

The Assistance for Security, Peace, Integration and Recovery for Advanced Human Security in BARMM project, known as ASPIRE, is implemented by the UNDP with the support of a U.S. $5 million grant from Japan, the UNDP reported. Developed through consultations with the Joint Normalization Committee (JNC), comprised of representatives of the Philippine government and the MILF, the initiative aims to limit small arms and light weapons, and disband private armed groups. (Pictured: Firearms turned over by former Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are tagged during decommissioning in the Philippines’ Maguindanao province in September 2022.)

Two days of armed conflict between the Philippine Army and the MILF broke out in early November 2022 on the island of Basilan in the BARMM before ending in a truce, Benar News reported. Three Soldiers and seven MILF members died in the fighting. Outside forces seeking to sabotage the peace efforts sparked the altercation, a government advisor said.

ASPIRE also seeks to provide economic support to former combatants and to help integrate them into mainstream society.

“The decommissioning of armed members is an important component to the peace-building efforts of the government of the Philippines,” Ong said. Outside funding is critical to the initiative, he explained, because it compensates for a government shortfall.

Japan’s grant came in September 2022 after the JNC sought support for the ASPIRE initiative. 

Japan has supported other programs benefiting the BARMM, including job training and infrastructure development, largely through the government-run Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

In late October 2022, the BARMM’s Ministry of Finance, and Budget and Management and the JICA reaffirmed their commitment to sound fiscal practices in the region, according to a news release.

“We see all of these as a gesture of goodwill that has proven helpful as we continue to work in achieving a transparent, inclusive and responsible government anchored to the principles of moral governance,” BARMM Finance Minister Ubaida Pacasem said of the JICA’s contributions.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.


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