WORM’S EYEVIEW: Time to get serious about autonomy, especially in Mindanao

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 29 April) – People can talk as much as they like about wanting good governance but nothing will improve unless they learn to do their part in governing their community (barangay)—which is their proper jurisdiction.

It’s just too bad that neither the authors of the Local Government Code nor the DILG have bothered to explain the nature of governance in the barangay—as a direct democracy. To this day, there has been no attempt to clarify this to the resident citizens so they will pay closer attention to local governance and development.

It’s really too bad because this is where citizens can be most effective. The upper levels—municipality and above—are properly the concern of their officials, under the representative form of government.

Orientating Filipinos to their responsibilities and role in the community government is the surest way to get the feel of self-governance and institutionalize autonomy at the base of our republic.

But because this hasn’t been done, the base of our republic remains shaky, even unwieldy. It is not effectively anchored on the people. The traditional politicos have reduced the role of their citizens to virtual irrelevance. They think and act as if governance is their vested monopoly.

One wonders how many there are of the 42,000+ barangays of our archipelago in which the officials yield to the people’s role and right to determine the community’s priorities, to decide what activities to undertake, to formulate what programs to implement.

More likely, the officials just manipulate the people and resources of the barangay for their own (mostly political) purposes. Thus what obtains is a mere caricature of democracy.

The people are supposed to assume the tasks of governing the immediate community, with the officials as their facilitators and enablers. But they’re either in default or the officials simply arrogate their role and no one bothers to correct them.


If the government is serious about local autonomy, it would promote the citizenry’s sense of responsibility by encouraging local folks to convene their Barangay Assembly as often as they wish, guided by their own agenda. This will get them used to open, community-wide deliberations and communitarian problem-solving.

It would strengthen the primary level, the base of the republic, and assure national stability and progress.

But there is this habit among supposedly responsible citizens of entrusting governance to neighborhood trapos. In turn the neighborhood trapos are beholden to the Big Trapos in the capital. This solidifies control by the Big Trapos over voters of the neighborhood and crowds out any hope of local reform or good governance.

The upper classes in the barangay are especially to blame for this bastardization of grassroots democracy. In surrendering matters to the trapos, they cause the poor and the impressionable to be victimized by wily politicos. They also cause the local quality of life to be sacrificed on the altar of personal convenience at upper levels.

Control by the upper level politicos over the barangay officials enables them to shape the community’s political culture. It gives them effective control of the attitudes, values, and votes of the neighborhoods. It turns the poor and less educated into willing victims of exploitation and dependency.

This voter dependency enables trapos to keep a stranglehold on the political system. Their control of the system’s primal base enables them to shape the manners, customs and political behavior of society-at-large. Whatever attitudes, values, standards, or practices they implant into our neighborhoods become those of the nation.

Since they have been at this game for so long, it is no surprise that the political system marches to their tune.

Meanwhile, no one bothers to offer a different marching tune; no one orients the community about the law, or calls the attention of officials about what they’re doing wrong. No one tells the neighbors about their role in assuring good governance as per the Local Government Code.

This knowledge deficit accounts for why autonomy remains a joke and why the ideal of self-governance remains elusive to this day, more than a generation after the passage of the Local Government Code.

Unaware of their sovereign power, people think the power is lodged at the municipal or city hall—as before when the barangay government had no significant authority or resources. It is a perception reinforced by barangay officials who view the municipal or city officials as their bosses. They don’t know or don’t want to believe that the power is with the sovereign citizens in their neighborhoods.

Hence, instead of democracy (government by the people) the barangay is ruled by a few people, an oligarchy—misleaders instead of true leaders.

Reforming this attitude, amending the behavior of the polity, is not an easy task. But it is attainable if autonomy or self-governance is institutionalized in the barangay, which is the level of the grassroots. People (especially the educated or the professional) must learn that the term “grassroots” includes them—since every Filipino lives in a barangay.

Even a small current of people power at this level, a gentle but sustained dose of sovereignty, would remedy the dysfunctional behavior of government starting at the base of the republic. It will reorient the political system properly (with sovereignty starting from below) since the upper levels of government get their mandate and authority from barangay voters.

Social change, behavior modification, or reengineering is difficult and slow, but it is manageable on the scale of the barangay. Reform-minded people just have to act out their convictions and learn to assert their sovereignty. To do so, even in small doses, through hands-on practice and experience of democracy, is the surest way to effect reforms and introduce societal change.

Who was it who said that “every particle of sovereignty counts to the overall picture of sovereignty?”

[Manny among others is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific, secretary-general of Southeast Asian Publishers Association, director at Development Academy of Philippines, member of the Permanent Mission to the United Nations, vice chair of Local Government Academy, member of the Cory Government’s Peace Panel, and PPI-UNICEF awardee for outstanding columnist. valdehuesa@gmail.com]