Autonomy, Federalism or Independence?

Amina Rasul

Posted on December 23, 2016

There are three main options espoused by Muslim leaders and intellectuals in response to the Bangsamoro people’s quest for self-determination: autonomy, federalism, and independence.

The Moros of Mindanao had fought for generations to preserve their sovereign sultanates from the time of the Spanish colonization to the grant of an independent Republic of the Philippines by the American colonial powers. The Moro wars for independence simmered under the new Republic, with Hadji Butu, prime minister of the Sulu Sultanate, agreeing to be the first Muslim Senator of the Republic.

However, Moro leaders never let go of the dream of independence, never forgetting the illegal annexation of their sovereign sultanates by a government which then marginalized and neglected their communities. The war for independence broke anew with the imposition of Martial Law, when Moro separatists and the Communist threat were declared as the two reasons for the imposition of Martial Rule. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), under Nur Misuari, was born to lead the war for independence.

Conceding that war is a no-win situation, both MNLF and government agreed to find a peaceful political solution.

Since the 1976 Tripoli Peace Agreement, autonomy has been the preferred and only option available.

Unfortunately, the autonomy finally implemented was not the genuine autonomy agreed upon under the 1976 agreement. The MNLF splintered in two, with leaders of Central Mindanao organizing the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) under the late Ustadz Salamat Hashim. Misuari’s MNLF went back to the mountains. After the Marcos years, the peace process was revitalized.

Under the late former President Corazon C. Aquino, autonomy for our ethnic communities -- in the Cordilleras and in the Muslim South -- was enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

Subsequent peace agreements with the Moro National Liberation Front (1996 Final Peace Agreement under former President Fidel V. Ramos) and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (as fleshed out in the rejected Bangsamoro Basic Law) sought to strengthen the implementation of genuine autonomy, as provided for in the Constitution.

However, autonomy was weak -- never as strong as that granted in 1976. Congress reduced the powers of the autonomous government. It rejected the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the end product of almost two decades of negotiations with the MILF.

The frustration and anger of armed groups, now enamored with the concept of a global Islamic Caliphate or State, grew with what they saw as double-dealing by a Christian government. To them, government was one. They did not recognize the balance of power among the three branches of government -- the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. They only saw the dysfunctional nature of the present political system and governance mechanisms and blamed government, attributing the rejection of the BBL to a Christian majority out to repudiate the aspirations of the minority Muslim community, long marginalized and neglected. These groups, who have expressed allegiance to the ISIS, have started their campaign of terror here in the Philippines, blaming the leaders of the MNLF and the MILF for allowing themselves to be duped by a government that will never do justice to the Moro.

What can we do, to preserve peace, stability and emerging unity amongst the peoples of the Philippines? Particularly today, as the world seems to be veering away from the concept of a global village to that of fortresses against “The Other.”

Now comes President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of Mindanao and his siren call of federalism.

Federalism, espoused since the ’70s by Mindanao leaders led by then Mayor Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr., has been gaining ground as a “lasting solution to separatism” and as a final option in dealing with Filipino diversity.

Elected Senator and later Senate President, Manong Nene continued to advocate federalism to end the unequal distribution of wealth and power by the national government. Under the Pimentel proposed federal constitution, there will be a shift in the structure of government from the unitary system to a federal system and from a presidential type to a parliamentary form of government. There will be consolidation of the local governments units (LGUs) in the existing 16 administrative regions, Metro Manila, and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) into 11 states. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao will be set up as a Bangsamoro State. There can be autonomous regions set up within the Bangsamoro State.

Is federalism the answer?

On Dec. 15, the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance organized a forum on Federalism, Autonomy, and Mindanao Peace Process at Club Filipino. We gathered leaders of the Bangsamoro diaspora, a potent sector never consulted by government as a group, regarding the present call of the government to shift to federalism.

The keynote speaker, Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. stressed the need to break the hold of the central government (Imperial Manila) on powers, despite devolution and the Local Government Code.

The panel included DFA Undersecretary for International Economic Affairs Manuel Teehankee, Atty. Raul Lambino, and Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo. Usec Teehankee focused his discussion on the fiscal and economic benefits of federalism. Atty. Lambino, who has been organizing forums on federalism for the past four months, provided additional insights into the distribution of powers that will benefit the regions under federalism. Atty. Sinarimbo, who has been a part of the MILF negotiating panel for many years, detailed the powers needed for genuine autonomy to be implemented and how autonomy fits into a federalist system.

The panel were in agreement on a major point: under the present unitary system, the control of powers and resources -- inspite of the Constitution and devolution -- have alienated the Bangsamoro people and other indigenous cultural communities. They acknowledged the neglect and discrimination suffered by indigenous peoples.

Former Senate President Nene Pimentel proposed 12 federal states -- five in Luzon (one for the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras), four in Visayas, and three in Mindanao (including the Bangsamoro State, which could have regions of autonomy).

The proponents also argued that the present ineffective and irresponsive system and the weakness of the rule of law have allowed political warlords, and corrupt politicians and dynasties to exist prosper.

Will federalism result in a more effective, equitable and responsive system? Most of the participants, after discussions with the panel, believed it would. In a quick survey held at the forum, 76% (48 out of 63 Muslim leaders) expressed their support for federalism.

Will federalism end the aspirations for independence of frustrated and angry armed groups in the South? Or, like the grant of autonomy by Congress, will it end up as a piece of legislation that will paper over differences? We need a well-designed home with a strong foundation to hold all our peoples together, not a house of cards. That political architecture can only be designed if our peoples are part of the drafting. As the forum participants opined, we need a Constitutional Convention.

I myself support the core arguments for federalism. However, I do believe that we need to have more engaged discussions -- not just mass forums that do little to elicit serious thought about what it takes to move from the present political system to another. I echo the comments of many of the leaders present at the forum: majority of our people, from Tawi-Tawi to the Ilocos, who say they support federalism see it as a miraculous system that will immediately change our situation. We need more engagement. I repeat the query at the federalism forum of the UP School of Economics: if federalism is the answer, what is the question?

Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy.