Should there be a Moro nation?

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Greg B. Macabenta

Posted on March 04, 2015

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that 44 young lives were the price that had to be paid to prod our country’s leaders and the rest of the citizenry to reconsider the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law as endorsed by Malacañang. The massacre at Mamasapano has prompted some supporters of the Basic Law to back off, and both Houses of Congress have now vowed to examine every provision, down to every turn of phrase, to make sure that an acceptable bill can be signed into law.

That, at least, is the good news: the fact that the more reasonable minds in the legislature are one with the Executive in pushing for the enactment of a law that would formalize the existence of Bangsamoro. But it would be a mistake and a defiance of public sentiment to force the draft law as it is.

In July last year, the government’s chief negotiator, Miriam Coronel Ferrer acknowledged that the draft of the Basic Law, at the time, had many “parts that may be considered as crossing the line.” She was referring to certain provisions that could be construed as unconstitutional.

In a media interview, Ferrer said that her team and representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were “reviewing the draft law line-by-line to make sure that it was within constitutional parameters.”

Indeed it takes a scholar, or a fanatic wordsmith, to be able to deduce the intended meanings of the verbiage, as well as the meanings intended to be avoided. The preamble itself could raise one’s eyebrows:

“We, the Bangsamoro people and other inhabitants of the Bangsamoro, imploring the aid of the Almighty, aspiring to establish an enduring peace on the basis of justice in our communities and a justly balanced society, and asserting our right to conserve and develop our patrimony;

“In consonance with the Constitution and the universally accepted principles of human rights, liberty, justice, democracy, and the norms and standards of international law, reflective of our system of life prescribed by our faith, and in harmony with our customary laws, cultures and traditions...”

Take the meaning of “in consonance with the Constitution.” One can argue that while it refers to “agreement or compatibility” with the Charter of the Republic, it does not have the mandatory meaning of “in compliance with the Constitution.” Was the choice of words intended?

In Section 1, the Bangsamoro people are defined. Bangsa is Bahasa for nation. Thus, Bangsamoro literally means Moro Nation.

According to Chief Justice John Marshall of the United States Supreme Court, in referring to American Indians or native Americans, “Indian nations have always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessor of the soil...The very term ‘nation’ so generally applied to them means “a people distinct from others.”

Many of us may continue to believe that the negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF has been between two groups of Filipinos, one group being mainly Christian and the other Muslim or Moro. Thus, certain provisions that give the impression of a sub-state being carved out of the Philippines has raised hackles. Why would fellow Filipinos want to do something like that?

The reality, however, is that the people who make up the Bangsamoro are only nominally Filipino. They probably have more in common with the people of Borneo, Indonesia and Malaysia. They were forcibly integrated into what became Las Islas Filipinas and the Republic of the Philippines by virtue of “conquest and colonization.”

It is certainly a positive sign that, after years of fighting for secession, they have agreed to accept their existence as part of the Republic of the Philippines. The alternative -- which, incidentally, continues to hover over our collective heads like the sword of Damocles -- is total war and secession.

The Moro-Philippine government experience is similar in many respects to that of American Indians and the United States of America. After decades of bloodshed, in the process of uprooting the Indian tribes from their ancestral lands, the US government decided to confront the harsh truth that American Indians were a distinct and sovereign nation. A primer on the subject states:

“American Indians and Alaska natives are members of sovereign tribal nations that have a unique legal and political relationship with the federal government. This relationship has a strong historical foundation, with roots in the treaty-based relationship between tribes and arriving European settlers, who recognized the inherent sovereignty of the tribes. This relationship has been recognized and reinforced by the United States Constitution, nation-to-nation treaties, federal statutes, case law, executive orders and other administrative policies.

“Just as the United States deals with states as governments, it also deals with Indian tribes as governments, not as special interest groups, racial minorities, individuals or other non-governmental entities....

“The status of Indian nations as governments and the preservation and protection of tribal history, language, culture and traditions are often misunderstood or not considered by the non-Indian community. However, this relationship can be summed up very simply. Self-government is essential for tribal communities to continue to protect their unique culture and identities, and in turn tribal culture and traditions provide the foundation upon which Indian communities are governed.”

It was certainly easier for the US to recognize the various tribes as sovereign nations because of the federal system of government which also recognizes the sovereignty of the 50 states of the Union.

But this is not the case with the Philippine Republic. Until federalism is considered seriously by our country’s leaders, our 7,100 islands -- including the areas that the Bangsamoro would claim -- must all operate under a “Central Government” (a term used in the Basic Law).

The 1987 Constitution provides for the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras “within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Section 16 states, “The President shall exercise general supervision over autonomous regions to ensure that laws are faithfully executed.” And Section 17, states, “All powers, functions, and responsibilities not granted by this Constitution or by law to the autonomous regions shall be vested in the National Government.”

The Bangsamoro Basic Law tends to cross the line set by the above provisions and opens it up to a constitutional challenge. Perhaps what people of goodwill in Congress, the MILF and the negotiating panel can agree on is to accept the half-a-loaf principle once espoused by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when we lobbied for the passage of the Overseas Absentee Voting Law and the Dual Citizenship Law.

“Accept the bills with their imperfections because you may not have another chance to get them this far,” she said. “You can always move to amend them later on.”

I believe that we need to accept the reality of Bangsamoro as a nation distinct from the rest of predominantly Christian Philippines. I believe we should welcome the Moro people’s sincere desire to integrate in the name of peace and progress. But, until changes in the Charter can be effected, the MILF may have to settle for half a loaf with respect to certain of the law’s proposed provisions.

There is so much suspicion and ill will prevailing because of Mamasapano. It would be a shame to drop the Basic Law because of this. But the MILF and the government panel have to agree to skirt the controversial provisions and go for half a loaf on the condition that the rest of the loaf will be forthcoming.

That should come with genuine progress being gained and goodwill generated between Bangsamoro and the rest of the country.

To those who espouse total war, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.