Remarks by Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. at the 20th Mindanao Business Conference, Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur, September 8, 2011
(As prepared for delivery)
Secretary Luwalhati Antonino, Honorable Samuel Co, Mayor of Pagadian City, Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Francis Chua, PCCI Vice President for Mindanao Edwin Capili, Pagadian Chamber of Commerce, President Mercedes Lourdes Quisumbing and Pagadian Chamber of Commerce, 1st Vice President, Jeffrey Almonte, Maayong buntag.
Assalamu w’alaikum, and good morning to all of you.
Thank you for inviting me to be here today. It is a great pleasure to be with business leaders like yourselves, people of vision and commitment. Let me ask us all to give a round of applause to the organizers, who every year remind us of the potential and promise this region offers. Finally, let’s offer our thanks to the city of Pagadian for hosting us all. In the United States we often say small towns have the biggest hearts, and Pagadian has shown us its very large heart today. Our thanks to all of you.
Last year this conference was held in Cagayan de Oro, and at the last minute I fell ill and wasn’t able to attend. However, my Embassy team, including representatives from USAID, from our Foreign Commercial Service, and from other agencies and sections, were there, and they brought 15 U.S. firms with them to look at business opportunities in Mindanao. More than half those firms made deals and are working today with some of you. We are very proud of that success.
In the year since I have instructed our Embassy to re-evaluate the spectrum of our programs and partnerships in Mindanao, especially those located in areas affected by conflict. Over several years we have had many programs, many initiatives, many partnerships, and yet it is hard to measure how much of a positive difference has resulted. Over the past four months I have sent five teams into Mindanao, representing ten different U.S. agencies, to ask just that question – and then listen. In Basilan we listened to Muslim women and religious leaders. In Jolo we listened to teachers and to farmers. In Marawi we heard the words of city officials and university professors. In Cotabato officials of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao shared their views and perceptions, as did barangay captains and civil society leaders. In every city, and especially in Zamboanga, business leaders told us what they needed, and what obstacles they faced.
Three themes repeated in every conversation. Three themes dominated every discussion. And one conclusion was shared by every group.
The first theme – the universal desire for consistent, reliable security. Teachers need secure roads so they can reach their schools. Business people need to be confident that their success and profit will not result in kidnapping and ransom. Shoppers and commuters want to be confident that extortionists won’t place a bomb on their jeepney or tricycle.
The second theme – the need for improved governance. The people want authorities to serve their constituencies, and not vice versa. Elections should not be a time of violence or vote-buying, but an opportunity for people to cast their ballots without intimidation.
The third theme – the need for broadened opportunity. The children of Mindanao want a good education. Their parents want steady jobs and access to markets. Mothers want their babies born healthy, and with good medical care nearby. Fathers want their children to live in peace with their neighbors, regardless of religion or clan.
And the one conclusion that every group shared, that every conversation highlighted, that every handshake confirmed – Mindanao has the people, the leadership, the resources, the desire to reach its full potential, if – and there’s always an “if” – If its many positive, powerful forces can come together.
When I say powerful, I do not mean armed, let me be very clear. It is the unauthorized armed forces of Mindanao that hold the entire area back. We support the government’s ongoing peace efforts with the MILF, as we always have, to bring stability that breeds opportunity. We continue to partner in job programs for former MNLF guerrillas to prove positive change comes from peace agreements. And we support the AFP and PNP’s ongoing efforts to confront transnational terrorists that find haven within and perhaps even promote conflict in Mindanao for their own nefarious ends. And since I know you will ask me about our travel advisory, let me just say right now that as long as bombs explode in the Zamboanga airport, as long as kidnap for ransoms dominate the headlines, as long as bus owners are extorted through violence, as long as political feuds are resolved through bombs and assassination, we will not be able to change our travel warning.
But I am here today because I have faith in one of the most powerful forces for positive change in Mindanao – and that’s everyone in this room. A business is a bet on the promise of tomorrow. Every one of you has risked capital, effort, labor and love in opening and running your enterprise. In doing so you’ve inspired someone else – a family member, an employee, an official – to make that same commitment to tomorrow by working harder, upholding a law, or taking a decision to make success possible.
You are proof that opportunity exists, that hard work does pay off, that initiative can be rewarded, and that Mindanao can thrive. It is because of your confidence that we are expanding our work with farmers, helping them be more efficient and productive. It is because of your success that we are active in micro-finance programs. It is because of the future you are building that we are investing in education and in health programs so that the children of today can follow your footsteps tomorrow.
We listened to you. We also listened to President Aquino’s cabinet, and his vision for Mindanao. Following all that we’ve heard, we are investing more than ever in police training. We have police trainers in Jolo, in Cotabato, in Zamboanga and soon in Basilan to help professionalize those units. Later today I am opening an improved crime lab in Zamboanga, so that evidence collected at crime scenes can be used to prosecute criminals.
We listened to you, and to President Aquino when he said he would make the anti-corruption effort his priority nationwide, so we will make good governance not only a program goal but a prerequisite for partnership.
We listened to you, and to President Aquino who said the greatest resource of the Philippines is her people. So we will continue to provide what opportunities we can for Mindanao youth, to provide English language and vocational training, to offer community health support, and to bring solar power and computers to remote areas.
But we look to you as well. We look to you to contribute to security, to peace, and to conflict resolution. We look to you to demand good governance from your leaders and institutions, and to model integrity for your communities. We look to you to invest in the future of Mindanao by offering opportunity to youth, to marginalized sectors, and to those seeking a new start.
Together – well let me tell you this. I hope, that by the time I leave my position as Ambassador of the U.S. in the Philippines, that two things will have happened. I hope that I will be in a position to recommend to Washington that it change the travel warning on Mindanao, because the peace situation has improved so remarkably thanks in part to your efforts. And I hope that by the time I leave we can talk about returning Peace Corps volunteers to Mindanao, and resume a partnership that has been a pillar of our friendship for almost 50 years.
Big dreams? I think so – but if anyone can help make it happen, you all can. Thank you for your time and attention.