Manila Conference 2019: Pathways to Peace and Development in the Philippines
Keynote address/Policy Perspective by Ambassador Steven J. Robinson AO
10 July, 2019 Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, it’s lovely to be here with you this morning. I’d like to start by acknowledging the Ateneo Vice President Jean-Paul Vergara, and I’d also like to thank all the organisers of this conference for inviting me to speak today. This is a really important conference and I’m delighted to be here with you.
This conference is a fantastic collaboration between Ateneo and the Australian National University, and I look forward to hearing some of the work that comes out of today and tomorrow.
This morning I’d like to talk to you about I’d like to talk to you today about Australia’s approach to foreign policy in our region, how we work with the Philippines, and particularly why we think peace and stability in the south of this country is so important.
Australia wants to foster an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific. This is where we all live, and it’s a region that is undergoing a period of great change. It has accounted for two-thirds of global growth over the last decade, and it is home to more than half the world’s population.
We believe we can make a meaningful impact here, and make a great contribution, working to ensure ongoing peace that will sustain the growth that has made the region the centre of the global economy.
The Philippines is one of Australia’s longest-standing bilateral relationships – we just clocked up 73 years, and we’re looking forward to celebrating our 75th in 2021. The relationship is underpinned by strong people-to-people links – there’s lots of Filipinos in Australia – 304,000 to be precise, the fifth-largest group in Australia, and there’s a lot of Australians here – we think about 25,000 but they don’t always tell us when they’re coming.
Our engagement includes trade and investment; education and research; development cooperation; defence, security and law enforcement; and regional cooperation.
Australia’s development cooperation programme in the Philippines has a strong focus in Mindanao, supporting peace and stability, basic education reform, and inclusive economic growth.
While I’ve only been in Manila since January this year – just clocked up six months today - I’ve had the great privilege to travel quite widely already in the Philippines, and that’s been all down in Mindanao.
It’s a beautiful place where are lot of people are working very hard, and there are real opportunities for growth and change now that the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has been established.
Australia has supported peace and development in Muslim Mindanao for more than 20 years.
We have always sought to strike a balance between support for the peace process and support for peace in general.
We are the lead donor on basic education through our Education Pathways to Peace program, which is working towards the more equitable participation of boys and girls in early grades of education, contributing to greater resilience, peace and prosperity.
The BARMM, regrettably, is the poorest region in the Philippines and the lowest performing in terms of education. Investing in these early grades of education is important to build foundational literacy and numeracy skills and foster values of peace and inclusion in a new generation.
We also fund peace building and community resilience work through non-government partners (that includes The Asia Foundation, International Alert, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Oxfam and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance) and also UNDP programs.
Through our peace-building work, we are helping the Government of the Philippines improve access to basic services in conflict-affected and fragile communities and promoting peace, security and prosperity in those communities.
For instance, we’re helping communities to work together to deescalate violence and resolve conflict, by establishing early warning networks on radicalisation and supporting land management planning and clan conflict resolution.
We’re encouraging an inclusive peace process and political dialogue through the participation of women and indigenous peoples, researching local drivers on violent extremism, and helping religious and community leaders to promote messages of tolerance and moderation.
We helped support work that led to the passage and ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, a tremendous achievement earlier this year, establishing the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and now we’re proud to be working closely with the BARMM as a development partner.
Australia is supporting the transition process through UNDP, providing governance capacity building support to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority
And we are is also supporting the ‘normalisation’ process to decommission combatants and establish peaceful and prosperous communities, through support to the World Bank-managed Mindanao Trust Fund, and in the future the Bangsamoro Normalisation Trust Fund and the Independent Decommissioning Body.
There is a huge amount of work to be done in the Bangsamoro over the next three years leading up to the 2022 elections. We must help the new BARMM government reap the benefits of the peace dividend.
While it is daunting, it is also exciting to be part of such a great project.
We share with the people of the Bangsamoro the desire for an end to conflict, and for peaceful development.
Peace and prosperity is good not only for the Bangsamoro, but for the whole of the Philippines and the region, including Australia.
During Ramadhan, we held an Iftar reception in Cotabato, which was attended by a fantastic cross section of the Bangsamoro community – members of the MILF and MNLF, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, academics, indigenous people’s representatives, religious leaders, former politicians, current politicians, military commanders, doctors, lawyers, ministers, students. They were all there, it was an extraordinary gathering.
The huge number and variety of people in the room was a testament to the work and cooperation required to come to that point. Regardless of their differences, a shared vision of peace brought everyone together.
In my short time in the Philippines I have been privileged to twice visit Marawi, where I have seen the Most Affected Area and met some of the many displaced families still living in camps on the outskirts of the city.
I was profoundly affected by the struggles of the people I met there, and by the horrific impact on the city the siege had. It’s quite phenomenal when you walk into the Most Affected Area to see 24 hectares of a city that is gone.
Australia contributed to the defeat of the terrorists who besieged Marawi, and now we are helping support the people who survived, through humanitarian assistance and the city’s recovery. That’s a vital piece of work and we’ve got to give them hope for the future and help them rebuild that city.
I hope that we can see a reborn Marawi that reflects its deep religious and cultural history.
Averting conflict and preventing violent extremism is a key objective of our program
Australia’s support for resolving rido [ree-doe, clan conflict], delivered through trusted local partners, has helped end more than 30 conflicts across Muslim Mindanao
We have also expanded our support for preventing violent extremism and helping improve the resilience of Bangsamoro communities to extremist influences
I recently travelled to Basilan, along with Secretary Galvez, and it was an extraordinary trip – somewhere I don’t think any Australian ambassador has been for a very long time – for the launch of a program we are funding that is helping reintegrate former Abu Sayyaf Group members into society.
It was quite astonishing to see former fighters sitting alongside members of the Philippine Armed Forces – and in one case, sharing an embrace with Secretary Galvez, whom many of you may know was once commander of the 104th Brigade in Basilan.
In Basilan, we have seen what can happen when the government works hard to show members of armed groups that there is another way – but we’ve also seen that fighters themselves are able to turn away from violent extremism.
I also saw a clear, sincere commitment on both sides to peace.
I hope we can see this reflected throughout the Bangsamoro,
particularly as the government moves ahead with the huge work required to decommission the 40,000 fighters of the MILF
I don’t think we can understate the scale of this task, and what its success will mean for peace in the Bangsamoro.
The importance of ensuring the normalisation process goes smoothly is essential. I’m proud of our support for the process and it will be fascinating watch combatants return to civilian life and camps turn back into normal communities.
This work aligns heavily with Australia’s priorities in preventing violent extremism in the Southern Philippines, but also across Southeast Asia.
We believe it is important to work with our partners to counter the drivers of violent extremism, engaging early with affected communities and challenging terrorist propaganda and recruitment.
I know that there are many struggles ahead, both in the Bangsamoro and abroad, including in Australia, as we work to build peace and solidarity.
It’s a great pleasure to be here during a period of such profound change and opportunity, and I sincerely hope our work helps contribute to a stronger Bangsamoro, a stronger Mindanao, and a stronger Philippines.