Communities of Inclusion and Resilience Through Collaborative Local Engagements (CIRCLE) Project Launch
Remarks by Ambasador Steven J. Robinson AO
8 August 2019 Hotel Jen Manila, Pasay City
Australia’s work in the Philippines has a strong focus in Mindanao, where for twenty years we have supported peace and stability, basic education reform, and inclusive economic growth.
We consider that peace and stability in the south of this country is essential to the prosperity and stability of the entire region, and we have always sought to strike a balance between support for the peace process and support for peace in general.
We fund peace building and community resilience work through a range of experienced non-government partners (The Asia Foundation, International Alert, The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Oxfam and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance) and UNDP programs.
Through our peace-building work, we are working with the Government of the Philippines as it seeks to improve access to basic services in conflict-affected and fragile communities and in promoting peace, security and prosperity in those communities.
For instance, we’re helping communities work together to de-escalate violence and resolve conflict, by establishing early warning networks on radicalisation, and by 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 promote messages of tolerance and moderation.
We are also proud to have helped support work that led to the passage and ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, establishing the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and now we’re pleased to be working closely with the BARMM as a development partner.
Australia is supporting the transition process through the UNDP, by providing governance capacity building support to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.
And we are also supporting the ‘normalisation’ process to 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.
Importantly, we share with the people of Mindanao the desire for an end to conflict, and for peaceful development. Peace and prosperity is good not only for Mindanao, but for the whole of the Philippines and the region, including Australia.
During Ramadhan this year, we were delighted to be able to hold an Iftar reception in Cotabato City, and that was attended by a wide cross-section of the Bangsamoro community – members of the MILF, the MNLF, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, academics, indigenous people’s representatives, religious leaders, former politicians, current politicians, military commanders, doctors, lawyers, ministers, and students. They were all there.
The huge number and variety of people in the room was testament to the work and cooperation required to get to that point. Regardless of everyone’s differences, there was a shared vision of peace that brought everyone together.
I see that sort of shared vision in this room today, as I look across your all, with so many people from across Mindanao coming together to tackle violent extremism. It is of course the people who are the closest to the challenge that have the insight and access required to take it down. I have recently seen this demonstrated in two other programs we are funding, in Marawi, and Basilan.
Yesterday, together with our Australian Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, Paul Foley, I visited the city of Marawi for the third time since I’ve been here in the Philippines. I first visited back in March of this year. As I’ve noted previously, nothing really prepares you for the extent of the devastation in the city and the horrific impact that the siege had on Marawi. I have to fully admit that I was profoundly affected and moved by the struggles of the people that I’ve met there. The same applied when I visited in June and the same applied yesterday – despite a range of support provided people and families are doing it tough.
Fortunately, the work being undertaken in the Most Affected Areas of Marawi is moving ahead. Significant demolition work has been undertaken and it would seem that for the completion of demolition and the start of construction by the end of the year this might be possible. There is hope but much more needs to be done.
Australia contributed to the defeat of the terrorists who besieged Marawi. Now we are helping support the people who survived, through humanitarian assistance and in contributing to the city’s recovery.
Among the groups that I met over the last few days in Marawi were members of the United Mothers for Marawi, who have organised themselves to be able to use the family unit to identify and respond to children who are vulnerable and protect them against being drawn to violent extremism.
Mothers and wives in Mindanao are well-placed to act as powerful role models against violent extremism, as the shapers of familial and social norms, and promoters of tolerance and social engagement.
Religion also has an important role to play in supporting the people through its balanced teachings. Imams and madrassas and Christian leaders too will be important in stimulating social harmony and community fellowship. This will be important if people are not to be drawn towards violent extremism.
As you’ve heard from Secretary Galvez, who was most generous in his remarks to me today, as he always is when I meet with him, about a month or so ago, I had the great honour to travel to Basilan, a location I am told that no Ambassador has gone to for some considerable time, let alone an Australian ambassador. And so we went down for the launch of another Balay Mindanaw program we are funding, which is helping reintegrate former Abu Sayyaf Group members into society.
This program builds upon the work of the Basilan Provincial Government and Mujiv Hataman during his time as Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor, and Secretary Galvez, in a variety of roles, is a real demonstration of how local governments, with careful and discreet central government support, can be used to achieve great things at the community level.
It was quite astonishing to see over 200 former ASG fighters sitting alongside members of the Philippine Armed Forces – and in one case, sharing a hug with Secretary Galvez, whom many of you 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 the armed groups that there is another way. We’ve also seen fighters themselves are able to turn away from violent extremism, when given options and opportunities.
In Basilan I witnessed a clear, genuine commitment on both sides to peace; a commitment that I know that you all share.
This work aligns heavily with Australia’s priorities in preventing violent extremism in the Southern Philippines, but also across Southeast Asia.
We firmly believe that it is vital to work with our partners to counter the drivers of violent extremism, engaging early with affected communities and challenging terrorist propaganda and recruitment, with a very different and optimistic narrative.
Ladies and Gentlemen - I know that there are many struggles ahead, both in Mindanao and abroad, and that includes in Australia too, for that matter, as we work to build peace, security and solidarity in our region.
For me, it is an absolute pleasure to be here in the Philippines during such a period of profound change and opportunity.
I am confident that if we all pull together, our work will help contribute not only to a stronger Bangsamoro, but a stronger Mindanao, and a stronger Philippines.
All power to Project Circle.
Thank you very much.