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Fulfilling Mindanao’s promise

Harry Roque

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President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s latest visit to Malaysia started with a bang with Senator Manny Pacquiao’s decisive win over Lucas Matthysse. We congratulate Senator Pacquiao for his superb form and top performance. If memory serves me right, last Sunday was probably the first time a sitting Philippine President was at ringside to watch Manny fight. I would like to believe President Duterte served as Manny’s lucky charm.

After Senator Pacquiao’s fight, an informal meeting was also held between President Duterte and Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad — whom the Palace earlier congratulated on his successful return as Prime Minister of Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir is an old friend of the Philippines and his fresh mandate bodes well for the deep relations between the Philippines and Malaysia.

The President was to have a formal meeting with PM Mahathir yesterday. High on the two leaders’ agenda are discussions on Mindanao and the presence of ISIS in the Philippines.

We expect that our improving relations with Malaysia will benefit both countries. Malaysia, as we all know, is a brother nation and dependable partner of the Philippines for having played a constructive role towards the attainment of peace and stability in Mindanao. We are confident that the strong partnership between our countries would continue to enhance in the years to come.

I am glad that Mindanao is now being given the attention it deserves. For the first time in decades, under President Duterte’s administration, Mindanao will be the biggest beneficiary of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” Program. In fact, the national government has allotted more than P100 billion for five infrastructure flagship projects that will make Mindanao the centerpiece of President Duterte care.

Quoting my Cabinet colleague Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, he said: “Beginning this year, a new Mindanao story is set to unfold. The island is the focal point of major infrastructure projects that will enhance economic production, open new irrigated lands for our agriculture and make the movement of goods and people easier.”

Among the big-ticket infrastructure projects in the island approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) are the P5.4-billion Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project expected for completion by 2019; the expansion and improvement of the Davao International as well as Laguindingan airports, which cost P40.6 billion and P14.6 billion, respectively; building and improvement of a total of 280 kilometers in roads and bridges in the Zamboanga Peninsula and Tawi-Tawi province under the Improving Growth Corridors in Mindanao Road Sector, including the 3.5-kilometer Panguil Bay Bridge that will connect Tubod, Lanao de Norte and Tangub City, Misamis Occidental; and the construction of first segment of Mindanao’s first railway system that will run across Tagum, Davao and Digos.

The irrigation facility, which will provide water to almost 10,000 hectares of land in 56 conflict-affected areas, would be located in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces as these areas are potential rice baskets for the entire Philippines. The two airport projects, meanwhile, will expand the capacity of the passenger terminal and cargo to accommodate the fast-growing number of visitors to southern and northern Mindanao. The upgrade of both airports is targeted for completion in 2025. Moreover, the first railway in Mindanao will relieve road congestion, reduce the cost of moving goods and people across long distances and spur economic activity in the region.

For decades, Mindanao has been largely neglected by “Imperial Manila.” This is no longer the case in the Duterte administration. The government’s “Build, Build, Build” program will be the backbone of development in Mindanao. These big-ticket infrastructure projects being rolled out by the government will “bring the entire island to the mainstream of national progress.”

But the promise of Mindanao will mean nothing if peace is not achieved in the South. One of the Islamic State (IS)–inspired extremists which posed a threat to Mindanao included the Maute group led by Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon. But with the strong and decisive leadership of the President, these terrorist leaders were neutralized creating a major breakthrough in our efforts to end the rebellion and finally liberate Marawi City from the Maute Group.

However, the IS threat is far from over. New leaders may soon emerge. This is why President Duterte’s talk with Prime Minister Mahathir was important. We need allies like Malaysia to keep terrorism at bay, particularly from the IS threat.