By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco

THE Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM has been described as a “radical transformation” from its predecessor, the ARMM. The former is a creation of Republic Act No. 11054 or the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (hereafter referred to as BOL), while the latter came to be via the now superseded Republic Act No. 6734 as amended.

But while there are truly innovative features in the BOL, the promise of a revolutionary change depends heavily on whether the polity can adopt a different view of the new regional government of the BARMM. From its traditional classification as a regular local government unit (LGU) to an updated designation as a unique political subdivision of the state. Crucially, a plain reading of Article X of the 1987 Constitution justifies such a paradigm adjustment.

Article X is essentially divided into two parts. Sections 1 to 14 are the first part covering regular LGUs such as provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays. On the other hand, Sections 15 to 21 cover Autonomous Regions only and refer specifically to Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras. Therefore, the regional government apparatus for these two autonomous regions is a totally distinct constitutional prescription.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court in the case of Disomangcop vs. Datumanong [G.R. No. 149848, November 25, 2004] ruled that:

“The idea behind the Constitutional provisions for autonomous regions is to allow the separate development of peoples with distinctive cultures and traditions. These cultures, as a matter of right, must be allowed to flourish.”

More to the point, the Court also ruled that:

“The objective of the autonomy system is to permit determined groups, with a common tradition and shared social-cultural characteristics, to develop freely their ways of life and heritage, exercise their rights, and be in charge of their own business. This is achieved through the establishment of a special governance regime for certain member communities who choose their own authorities from within the community and exercise the jurisdictional authority legally accorded to them to decide internal community affairs.”

It is worth recalling that the purpose of the BOL is to fulfill the mandate of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) to strengthen regional autonomy for the Bangsamoro.

The CAB specifically provides that the relationship between the Central Government and the Bangsamoro Government shall be asymmetric. This prescription aims to distinguish the Bangsamoro regional government from other local government units. Meaning, its relationship with the national government should be fundamentally different from the relationship of other local governments to the central bureaucracy.

Whilst the word “asymmetric” to describe the relationship of the national government and the Bangsamoro government is not found in the BOL, the statute itself is proof that the Bangsamoro regional governance infrastructure vastly differs from the current local government structure under the Local Government Code of 1991.

First of all, the BOL establishes a ministerial regional government structure with a strong mandate for a disciplined political party system. This framework is unique to the Bangsamoro. Critically however, when employed for the purpose it was designed for, the parliamentary structure makes maintaining good governance over region more probable.

Moreover, the BOL also institutes a robust fiscal autonomy regime, the centerpiece of which is the block grant. This fiscal framework is also unique to the Bangsamoro and when utilized properly and strategically, can indeed lead the Bangsamoro to genuine self-governance.

Therefore, the word “asymmetric” may be absent in the BOL, but the regional governance structure established by this law is certainly distinct from the regular local government apparatus. The political and fiscal autonomy of the Bangsamoro government is clearly more substantial than other local governments.

More critically, the creation of various intergovernmental relations (IGR) bodies such as the National Government-Bangsamoro Government Intergovernmental Relations Body, the Philippine Congress-Bangsamoro Parliament Forum, Fiscal Policy Board, Joint Body for Zones of Joint Cooperation, Infrastructure Development Board, Energy Board and Sustainable Development Board are the features of the BOL which clearly demonstrate that the Bangsamoro government has an elevated status over other local governments in terms of its relationship with the central government.

Through these IGR mechanisms the Bangsamoro government can be at par with the national government when it comes to the decision-making process involving particular development and governance mandates. This is so contrary to the status of other local governments where most often than not, decisions have been made for them by the national government.

Furthermore, the BOL specifically commands that the Bangsamoro government shall be represented in the departments, offices, commissions, agencies and bureaus of the national government that implement and enforce policies, programs, and projects of the national government in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

Such a statutory command essentially characterizes the Bangsamoro government as a partner of the central bureaucracy within the Bangsamoro region. Contrary to the treatment of local governments as mere agents of the national government.

Crucially, given its access to the block grant, it is paramount for the Bangsamoro government to have a firmer claim on its autonomy than the regional government it is set to replace. Otherwise, this vastly increased fund transfer may also fail to deliver the development outcomes many of the people in the Bangsamoro region are hoping for.

In sum, the innovations in the BOL cited here require both the national government and the Bangsamoro community to view the new BARMM regional government not as a regular LGU. And only when both sides make this adjustment will genuine and meaningful regional autonomy be truly achieved.

By design, the fiscal autonomy provisions and the IGR mechanisms in the BOL are venues for the Bangsamoro government to assert true autonomy against the traditional domination of the central government. But if the new generation of Moro leaders will not see themselves as equals with the national politicians and bureaucrats, then the pathologies of the past regional regime will persist.

Correspondingly, the national government must now fully internalize this judicial admonition in the Disomangcop case:

“Regional autonomy refers to the granting of basic internal government powers to the people of a particular area or region with least control and supervision from the central government.”

Without a doubt, a business-as-usual frame of mind will really not make the BARMM any better than ARMM.


Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M is a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.