PEACETALK: Is the regional government really necessary?

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/31 Oct) –The resolution to the longstanding crisis in Muslim Mindanao is of course not achieved by simply answering this question—“Do you approve of the Bangsamoro Basic Law?” There is however, a bitter irony here. This is not really an honest Yes or No proposition because there is actually no No option. For Filipinos residing in the proposed Bangsamoro territory, a Yes means being in favor of the creation of the expanded regional autonomy regime both in terms of territory and authority. However, a No not just means a rejection of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). It also signifies the acceptance of being stuck with the untenable Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Essentially, both choices denote a Yes to the regional autonomy model sanctioned in the Constitution.

It can certainly be argued that the plebiscite question is fundamentally unfair because it is fixed on only one local autonomy model. There really is no clear explanation why the decentralized system established by the Local Government Code (LGC) has been completely removed from the equation. The Constitution clearly calls for the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, but this does not automatically mean that Filipino Muslims themselves are bound by this particular local autonomy regime. In fact, Igorots of the Cordillera have twice rejected the regional autonomy model. Indeed, opting out of this regional autonomy model is a viable alternative Constitutional path available to Filipino Muslims in Mindanao.  Unfortunately, this option is not presented in the BBL.

Nevertheless, as Congress deliberates on the BBL, I believe the alternative to get out of the regional autonomy regime and fall under the governance of the LGC is worth exploring. At the very least, Muslim Filipinos must be given a real opportunity to rationally imagine a different political economic order from the one they have been suffering since 1989. Indeed, I think it is advisable for the various Filipino Muslim communities to deconstruct the regional autonomy model. The question they should be asking now is—Is the regional government really necessary?

Let us look at Article XII of the BBL which considerably expands the scope of local fiscal autonomy. Take for instance, Section 9 which transfers the authority to collect national taxes such as capital gains tax, donor’s tax, and estate tax to the regional government when all taxable elements are within the Bangsamoro territory. The widening of the scope of fiscal autonomy is laudable no doubt. But a vital feature of this new arrangement is that the Bangsamoro government gets the entire amount generated from the enhanced revenues measures. Section 12 then just authorizes the projected Bangsamoro Parliament to enact a law to detail the share of constituent local government units. One question that can be asked is why should the regional bureaucracy get full control of the revenues? What services to the local communities do they give that warrants first dibs on the revenue pie?

Ostensibly, the premise of giving the Bangsamoro government full control over the revenue stream is the notion that the local governments of the various communities in the region are unable to properly wield such authority. There is certainly a prevailing view in the BBL that local governments in Muslim Mindanao are incapable of exercising the enhanced powers themselves thus making a regional bureaucratic structure necessary. Take the management of coastlines for example. The Galing Pook Foundation website is a virtual repository of examples of success stories about coastal management by local governments in other parts of the country.If other coastal local governments are able to manage their own coastlines successfully and even earn revenues for the communities directly from their administrative operations, then coastal communities in Muslim Mindanao can also do the same. The BBL however, has other arrangements in mind. Sections 20 and 22 of Article XIII actually give the authority to manage and exploit coastlines and other inland water bodies to the Bangsamoro government with the relevant communities simply afforded an “equitable share” in the generated revenues.

This new arrangement is highly controversial because it deprives the local communities of their real mandated share. The overarching rule in the sharing of revenues from natural resources is found in Section 7 of Article X of the Constitution that reads as follows:

“Section 7. Local governments shall be entitled to an equitable share in the proceeds of the utilization and development of the national wealth within their respective areas, in the manner provided by law, including sharing the same with the inhabitants by way of direct benefits.”

The critical condition here is that the proceeds from the use of the natural assets must be shared “with the inhabitants by way of direct benefits.”  The clear and indisputable mandate of the Constitution is that the revenues “generated though exploration, development or utilization of natural resources obtaining” in a particular territory must be translated into roads, hospitals, schools and other facilities that will be directly enjoyed by the corresponding community. Meaning, all the funds raised from the natural wealth obtained from Samal lands must first directly benefit the Samal people. The same logic also applies for the Iranun, Badjao, and so forth.

The BBL seems to have sidestepped this Constitutional requirement.  The Bangsamoro Parliament is now privileged under the BBL to determine the “equitable share” of local governments from the revenues coming out of natural resources within their respective communities. Effectively therefore, whoever holds the power in this contemplated regional government, has sole and primary control over this particular revenue source. Corollarily, compliance with the Constitutional directive of sharing this money “with the inhabitants by way of direct benefits” has become subject to political wrangling. The very scenario the Constitution was meaning to avoid.

Let me be clear that the expansion of the scope and depth of fiscal autonomy is not objected to here. But the perceived strategic advantage of lodging the expanded powers exclusively at a regional bureaucracy needs to be questioned. Indeed, it must be pointed out that this arrangement could be more detrimental to development efforts because it can potentially undermine the autonomy of local governments. And this eventuality has to be prevented because it can have adverse ramifications on the welfare of local communities.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her thoughts on peace in Mindanao. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is presently completing a Masters of Law and Development in Melbourne Law School. He recently published a book entitled, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.)