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My Lords, the Philippines is an almost magical country with wonderful people, but it suffers from some of the worst inequality and probably the most significant extreme weather events—and it has also suffered in recent decades from conflict. Those things make it one of the most difficult places in the world in which to live. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate and I look forward to hearing the answers to the many questions that he has, rightly, posed.
I want to add two further questions. The first relates to the Rappler news organisation. The Rappler news website and the organisation that works behind the scenes to produce the news content are outstanding, fair and scrupulous, but the organisation has been under constant attack over recent months and years. The director, Maria Ressa, is an outstanding journalist and was recently internationally recognised as such. I would be interested to know what the UK Government have done to make representations on behalf of the free press in the Philippines and to ensure that government attacks on Rappler are ended.
My second question relates to the conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. President Duterte is an extremely controversial individual. I share many of the concerns about his actions that have already been mentioned in your Lordships’ House and I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to those. However, if there is one area where he has made progress, it is the peace agreement that had stalled. This agreement was reached in 2014 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the then Government of the Philippines.
Just this week we see referenda taking place in the Bangsamoro area in Muslim Mindanao to secure, it is hoped, the establishment of a devolved authority in that part of the Philippines, with a laying down of arms by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its thousands of fighters, and with the Government recognising that autonomy is the way forward for that area economically, socially and politically. Even today it is speculated that Cotabato City, which is the capital of the region but was never in the old administrative region, might even have voted against the advice of its mayor for the peace agreement and for this devolution.
There is perhaps, at long last, hope in that one part of the Philippines. I would be interested to know what actions the Government are taking to help build the peace in that area, where, for example, young girls are three times more likely to leave primary school early than they are in even the poorest parts of the rest of the Philippines.
Back in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the United Kingdom, with colleagues from Northern Ireland, the UK Government and Scotland, was involved in supporting the process of peace through devolution. I would be interested to know what the Government will be doing to try to help build the peace following the referenda to ensure the stable establishment of devolved authority that can give some hope to the people of Muslim Mindanao, help resist the occasional encroachment by Islamic State and other groups which are trying to get a foothold in that part of south-east Asia, and provide the educational and economic opportunities that the people in that part of the Philippines have been missing for far too long.