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Federalism vis-à-vis right of the Bangsamoro

By Bai Sandra A. Sema

THE Bangsamoro people wanted independence. This is so because we believe that Spain had no right to cede our territory to the United States of America through the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898.  For many years, independence had been our battle cry, until we realized that the foreign invaders – which include Spain and the United States of America – who wanted to separate us from our brothers and sisters in this archipelago, have left our native land.

Of course, we want peace.  We were at peace with the rest of the nations in this archipelago.  We were at peace with the Bisaya before they were used by the Spaniards to fight against us.  We were at peace with the Ilocanos.  We were at peace with the Tagalogs.  We were at peace with them in spite of the fact that they spoke a different dialect, carried on life in a different manner, and worshipped a different god.  We were at peace because we respected one another.

But when the colonizers started imposing a common religion; when they started putting up a common educational system; and when they began to impose upon us all a common way of life, the peace that once abounded in these islands started to disappear.  Trust had been replaced with mistrust.  While we were close before, we began to treat each other at arms’ length.  And what used to be cooperation among us had become a competition.

The Bangsamoro had always been an independent nation before the age of colonization.  It may not be appropriate to call us people of Southern Philippines as we pride ourselves of being referred to as the people South of the Philippines.  We are a people who remember our past, know our present, and are able to determine our future.  Our right to self-determination is one of our God-given rights, independent of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Contrary to western beliefs, the Bangsamoro are a peace-loving people.  That is why in 1976 in Tripoli, although it was hard for us to give up independence, we agreed to accept autonomy, for the sake of peace.  To honor our word in the spirit of conciliation and understanding, our negotiator then – the MNLF – agreed to lay down arms.  On the other hand, the Republic of the Philippines agreed, among others, to the establishment of autonomy covering the following areas: Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, South Cotabato, Palawan.

The Government of the Philippines agreed to set up courts which implement the Islamic Shari-ah laws.

The Government of the Philippines agreed that the authorities of the autonomy shall have their own economic and financial system.

The Government of the Philippines agreed a Special Regional Security Forces to be set up in the area of autonomy for the Muslims in the South of the Philippines.

But when the details of these things were discussed in the proposed

Bangsamoro Basic Law during the last Congress, they say that these cannot be done as they are unconstitutional.

The Government of the Philippines committed to take all necessary constitutional processes for the implementation of the entire agreement.  Of course, we know that one constitutional process is to amend the Constitution so that the Republic of the Philippines can comply with its commitments under the Tripoli Agreement in good faith.

For the Bangsamoro, these are some of the important things on autonomy that the Government had committed.  From 1976 in Tripoli up to 2017 today, after more than forty years, we still hope that autonomy for the Bangsamoro is forthcoming.  We still hope that the Government’s commitments not only with the MNLF but also with the MILF under the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro will see the light of day.

But what does autonomy really mean?  “Autonomy” is the combination of the Greek words auto and nomos.  Auto means self or own and nomos means law, rule, binding custom, and way of life.  In other words, it means self-rule.  How does the Bangsamoro achieve self-rule if we do not have the things that have been committed in Tripoli and in the grounds of Malacanang?

No less than the Supreme Court of the Philippines has declared that regional autonomy refers to the granting of basic government powers to the people of a particular area or region with least control and supervision from the central government.  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 business. (Disomangcop v. Secretary of Public Works and Highways, G.R. No. 149848, November 25, 2004)

Now the Government is dangling the prospects of converting the entire archipelago into a federal system.  Will the Bangsamoro benefit from this?

The concept of federalism is not an entirely new concept to the Bangsamoro.  Even before the Philippines’ recorded history, we know that although we were not under one flag, the Muslim tribes were united in resisting foreign invaders in our territory.  Our history is replete with stories of several datus confederating to thwart threats against the Bangsamoro Homeland.

Federalism is not also foreign to hearts of our brothers and sisters in the rest of the archipelago.  The first Philippines Republic established at Biak-na-Bato by revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo had a federal constitution.  Although the republic lasted only six weeks, and its leaders went into exile in Hong Kong, but when Aguinaldo returned the following year to proclaim Philippines independence the Biak-na-Bato federal constitution was revived.

The Malolos Constitution was approved by the Revolutionary Congress in 1899.  Although it was not federal, Aguinaldo recognized the separate status of the Moros and proposed that the new government be empowered to negotiate with the Moros for the purposes of establishing national solidarity upon the basis of a real federation with absolute respect for their beliefs and traditions (quoted in the book of Canoy 1987:69-70).

Later, however, the United States took control of the Philippines. Several “little republics” set up during the revolution quickly faded away, though the Negros Republic survived for a time, anticipating statehood within a federal Philippines republic.  The US, despite its own experience of federal government, did not pursue the federal idea.

Several years later, delegates to a constitutional convention set up by the Marcos government voiced some support for a federal system.  There was proposal to form a federal republic comprising of five states.  Later, Marcos declared martial law.

Reading from the paper of Ronald J. May, he said: Following the People Power Revolution, in 1986 a Mindanao People’s Democratic Movement (later renamed Mindanao Independence Movement) emerged, with the declared intention of establishing a Federal Republic of Mindanao, with ‘proportionate cultural representation’ of Christians, Muslims and Highlanders (tribal groups/cultural communities).  The movement was led by Mindanao politician and former Marcos oppositionist Reuben Canoy, who in 1986 was involved in an abortive attempt to set up an independent state of Mindanao.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was some discussion of “federalization,” notably in the advocacy of the political group, Unlad Bayan, led by businessman Enrique Zobel, and in a scholarly article by Rizal Buendia (1989). Proposals for a federal system emerged again in the late 1990s.  The case for federalism was argued (if at all) largely in terms of resolving the continuing problems of separatism in Muslim Mindanao, though probably the most prominent advocate of federalism was Senator John Osmeña, a member of the clan which has dominated politics in the Visayan province of Cebu for most of the past century.

Another advocate was Aquilino Pimentel, like Canoy a Mindanao politician and former Marcos oppositionist, who became secretary for local government in the Aquino government and was principal author of the Local Government Code of 1991, before becoming president of the Senate.

In 2000 Senators Pimentel, Osmeña and Francisco Tatad proposed a bill to establish federal government and the chair of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, promised to call for a constitutional convention to consider the proposal, but the initiative lapsed.

But what is federalism?  There are many models of a federal system of government.  Federalism may be said to be a system of government in which the power is divided between a central government and various constituent units of the country.  Usually, a federation has two levels of government.  One is the government of the entire country that is usually responsible for a few subjects of common national interest.  The others are governments at the level of regions as in our case or states that look after much of the day-to-day administering of their state.  Both these levels of governments enjoy their power independent of the other.

If we look at the US model, under its Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States [or the central government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”  In other words, the small states enjoy residual powers in that if these are not granted to the central government or prohibited to be exercised by them, the small states possess those powers.  It is a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a union of separate State governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways (the U.S. Supreme Court speaking through Justice Hugo I. Black in the case of Younger v. Harris).

Will a federal state solve the Bangsamoro problem?  I would like to quote the question of Atty. Benedicto Bacani: “If the Bangsamoro state is established with the other states in a Federal Philippines, will not the unique reason for its existence as fought for by the Moros for many years be lost in the broad sweep of a national federal set-up? If autonomy cannot be made to work in one region – the Armm – how can the federal system bring development to eleven or more states? In these times of scarcity and need, when not enough budget support can be given the Armm, will the Bangsamoro state further lag behind as resources are siphoned off to more developed regions?”

You judge.  But as for me, a call to amend the constitution will be an opportunity for the Government of the Philippines to remove its own constitutional restraints to comply with its commitments under the Tripoli Agreement and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

As far as the Bangsamoro people are concerned, we have complied with our commitments.  It is now the turn of the Government of the Philippines to perform its part of the bargain.  You may call it autonomy.  You may call it federalism.  You may even call it independence.  The Bangsamoro people simply demand the Government of the Philippines to honor its word. Otherwise, set us free.

(Maguindanao 1st District Rep. Bai Sandra Sema is deputy speaker for Mindanao. This was delivered at the “Building the Infrastructure for Political Dialogue on the Bangsamoro” conference at the Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City on May 11, 2017.)


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