(Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the government panel for talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and a political science professor of the University of the Philippines.)
Initial reactions to the government’s (GPH) proposal to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were understandably varied. Those who feared the unknown entity that goes by the name of “substate” were relieved that the government’s offer of a new autonomy will stay within the bounds of the Philippine Constitution. Those who wanted bolder measures felt the proposal was inadequate. “Heaven and earth” was how the MILF’s Mohager Iqbal described their draft against ours.
We in the GPH panel say that, indeed, our proposal is firmly grounded on earth. It consciously considered the reality of present-day Mindanao as made up of diverse and complex sociocultural, political and even armed groups, all claiming their rightful share to the land.
It takes into account the system of separation of powers among governmental branches, which even tremendous political capital and a firm political will cannot bypass. It pragmatically sees what are achievable within the time frame of this administration given the realities and, sad to say, the dominance of an unsympathetic majority thinking on the minority population’s claims.
At the same time, the GPH’s “3-for-1” proposal does address the key issues that have driven the Bangsamoro cause in the last 100-plus years. It is not reneging on the President’s commitment—reiterated in his meeting with MILF chief Ebrahim Murad—to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Mindanao.
First of all, the GPH proposal meets the need to acknowledge a distinct identity and history of the Moros as part of the Philippine mosaic. It recognizes their legitimate grievances and provides, where possible, appropriate forms of reconciliation and restorative justice.
The acknowledgement, through symbolic measures like a heroes’ memorial and concrete steps like reviewing history books for misrepresentations of the Bangsamoro, is needed to build mutual respect for religious, historical and cultural differences.
Mutual acceptance and recognition are essential for peaceful coexistence among our peoples sharing one country, one citizenship. The psychic and moral wellbeing derived from this component will give new meaning to the material and institutional approaches.
Secondly, the GPH proposal does not merely offer a choice between economic and political solutions. It recognizes that economic development in the region which hosts the highest school dropout and the lowest longevity rates is needed to reverse the neglect and meet human development goals. Without it, any form of self-governance will not prosper.
Thus, the President has pledged support to a roster of development projects that will employ multiple delivery systems, including the appointed ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) government, LGUs (local government units) and the national line agencies.
To the MILF, the GPH offers a partnership in the form of the proposed Joint Coordinating Committee on Development (JCCD) that will identify and implement socioeconomic projects complementary to the development plan for the region. The JCCD shall be cochaired by the GPH and the Bangsamoro Development Agency.
The MILF has said it is no longer asking for independence; neither will it settle for the status quo in the form of the ARMM.
In between independence and autonomy is a spectrum of possible forms of self-governance. Possibilities include a symmetrical federalism where several coequal states are created to form a federal republic pulled together by a federal government. Another is an asymmetrical relationship, such as the MILF’s proposed “substate” which accords a special, semifederal status to one unit.
Then there are multiple other possibilities for regional autonomy within the broad mandate given in the 1987 Constitution. The options certainly exclude the ARMM in its current form, which both parties and everyone else agree, for many reasons, has indeed failed as a vehicle for empowerment.
The GPH panel believes that many elements of the contemplated substate may be introduced within the parameters of regional autonomy, the 1987 Constitution and other existing, progressive domestic and international laws. How so, the parties can further discuss.
The three core issues up for discussion are governmental powers, natural resources and ancestral domain, and geographic coverage of the autonomy.
On governance, the two parties are of one mind that powers relating to foreign affairs, national defense, postal service, coinage and monetary policies, citizenship and naturalization, global trade and national taxation shall remain with the national government. These reserved powers are in fact already enshrined in the current Organic Act for the ARMM (Republic Act No. 9054).
What remains to be negotiated are the other powers reserved for the national government in the Organic Act which the MILF wants delisted. These include the administration of justice, quarantine, customs and tariff, general auditing, national elections, maritime, land and air transportation and communications, and patents and copyrights.
The pros and cons of delisting and transferring control to a new autonomous government can be resolved on the basis of self-governance principles on the one hand, and good governance standards, national security and the essential check-and-balance needed between the national and regional, on the other hand. Such control and supervisory levers retained by the national government after all are present even in federal systems and do not, unless abused, negate autonomy.
Indeed, creative, collaborative thinking—or the problem-solving approach—can come up with various modes of judicious distribution of powers, or comanagement and other power-sharing schemes. Power-sharing and participatory and representative modalities, by the way, are also relevant issues in defining the relation with the local governments in the area of autonomy and the different sectors—tribes, clans, women, indigenous and settler communities—within this entity.
Both parties more or less agree that vested property rights shall be protected even as ancestral domain and agrarian reform claims are duly recognized. Reconciling differing legal as well as customary frameworks on land and resources will be a challenge.
But in the end, the responsibility to integrate these claims into a cohesive legal framework and provide mechanisms to settle disputes will belong to the autonomous government.
The GPH proposal only seeks to ensure that there will be no derogation of rights already granted by the Constitution and existing law to indigenous peoples and other property holders.
The GPH proposal, again, is very open to comanagement and wealth-sharing schemes relating to mineral and energy resources. After all, all other local governments already enjoy such guarantees.
The annexed lists of municipalities and barangays for possible inclusion in the Bangsamoro domain caused much of the opposition to the 2008 memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain.
The GPH proposal foregoes such contentious lists. What it provides are procedures for joining such as through local government resolutions/initiatives (as provided in the Local Government Code) and the mandatory plebiscite.
In all, the GPH panel is saying that most of the demands of the MILF for self-governance can be accommodated within the present Constitution. By passing a new Organic Act, a more functional, representative and participatory governance institution with many of the features envisioned by the MILF can be incorporated. Coupled with the socioeconomic component, the means and conditions to become truly autonomous are enhanced.
The GPH offer is, therefore, principled and pragmatic. It is transformative rather than “surgical.” While it understands the vision behind the MILF’s proposal for a constitutional amendment that will allow the creation of a Bangsamoro substate whereby they themselves, will craft the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the GPH is saying that this option is not viable at this time.
Still, the GPH offer is another way to get closer to that “heaven” in the Bangsamoro’s dream.