PEACETALK: “IPRA itself is a peace agreement”

This position paper on the Bangsamoro Basic Law was submitted by Fr. Albert E. Alejo, SJ to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law on October 29, 2014) 

Your Honors,

Thank you for your invitation to participate in the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and to offer a position paper on House Bill No. 4994. Normally, I do not write my homily. But today (October 29, 2014) is a special feast day. It is the 17th anniversary of your landmark legislation, Republic Act 8371, that is more commonly known as the Indigenous Peoples’ Right Act. Let me then focus my manifestation today on one proposition: If we want the Bangsamoro Basic Law to really lead to a just, inclusive and long-lasting peace in Mindanao, then it must, among other things, guarantee the recognition, respect and implementation of the Indigenous Peoples Right Act (IPRA). Please allow me to explain.

ARMM was a failed experiment,
not just because of corruption,
but because it failed to do justice
to the indigenous peoples.

President Aquino has declared Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a “failed experiment.” And both Government and the MILF agree that “the status quo is unacceptable”. I believe this failure is not just because of wasted resources, environmental degradation, gender violence, proliferation of illicit trade, among other things, but also because both the ARMM and Malacanang have consistently and jointly failed to render justice to the legitimate struggle of the indigenous peoples for dignity and self-determination.

Congress gloriously enacted the IPRA in 1997, the same year that the Philippine Government formally started peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But in all these 17 years—and it was not the fault of the MILF—the Magna Carta for the indigenous peoples’ rights has been rebuffed in the ARMM.

Under many regimes, ARMM and the Central Government neither implemented the IPRA nor enacted an equivalent law in the region. They did not install the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and did not allow the delineation of the ancestral domains of the Tedurays, the Lambangians, and the Dulangan Manobos, despite their relentless but peaceful advocacy. This rejection has sent sad signals even to the neighboring tribes like the Erumanen Manobo, the Higaonon, the B’laan, the Obo Manobo, among others, whose collective identities are tied to their own inherited territories.

To secure the rights of the indigenous peoples
while correcting injustice to the Bangsamoro—
that is really revolutionary, because
it puts a stop to the whole colonial project. 

Now, it would be a triumph of the present peace process if the Bangsamoro Basic Law would correct this ‘historical and continuing injustice’, this ‘unacceptable status quo’, this ‘failed experiment’, by explicitly guaranteeing—in letter and spirit—that at the minimum it will affirm, respect, implement and, to the extent possible, improve on the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.

Come to think of it, this call, which I firmly support, is not asking for anything new or superfluous. The IPRA is already an established national law. Adopting IPRA may also solve the BBL need for clear legal definitions that have passed the test of constitutionality in the High Court. What it needs is stronger implementation, not derogation. The Bangsamoro Basic Law must therefore make sure—in letter and spirit—that it will not in any way diminish the IP rights that are already protected by both national and international legal instruments. I am confident that embracing IPRA in the BBL will be a unique contribution to the cessation of the whole colonial project, and will be a sure sign of sincerity of this revolutionary peace process.

It is precisely for this cessation of the colonial project that the Supreme Court defended the IPRA against those attacked its constitutionality. Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno eloquently expounded the wisdom of the Supreme Court decision:

“The struggle of the Filipinos throughout colonial history had been plagued by ethnic and religious differences. These differences were carried over and magnified by the Philippine government through the imposition of a national legal order that is mostly foreign in origin or derivation. Largely unpopulist, the present legal system has resulted in the alienation of a large sector of society, specifically, the indigenous peoples. The histories and cultures of the indigenes are relevant to the evolution of Philippine culture and are vital to the understanding of contemporary problems. It is through the IPRA that an attempt was made by our legislators to understand Filipino society not in terms of myths and biases but through common experiences in the course of history. The Philippines became a democracy a centennial ago and the decolonization process still continues. If the evolution of the Filipino people into a democratic society is to truly proceed democratically, i.e., if the Filipinos as a whole are to participate fully in the task of continuing democratization, it is this Court’s duty to acknowledge the presence of indigenous and customary laws in the country and affirm their co-existence with the land laws in our national legal system.”

IPRA itself is a peace agreement,
achieved through peaceful means.
It must not be sacrificed just to sign
another peace pact won by war.

On 20 April 2014, I had the audacity to write a letter to the President, expressing my support for the small voice calling for securing the modest gains of IPRA into the BBL. In that letter, I added a slant: Isn’t IPRA itself a legal embodiment of a “peace agreement”? When the IPRA was challenged in the Supreme Court, the High Court defended IPRA’s constitutionality. Like the Bangsamoro Basic Law, IPRA is meant to correct “historical injustice” and “decades of neglect” committed against indigenous peoples. Again, in his affirmative vote, Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Puno “attempts to interpret IPRA by discovering its soul shrouded by the mist of our history. After all, the IPRA was enacted by Congress not only to fulfill the constitutional mandate of protecting the indigenous cultural communities’ right to their ancestral land but more importantly, to correct a grave historical injustice to our indigenous people.”

It is also good to note that the IPRA is a peace agreement that has been achieved through peaceful means! This is a product of many years of dialogue and debate, research and ritual. It has been hailed internationally as one of the most progressive legislations, predating even the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). IPRA deserves at least the same respect as a peace agreement that has been achieved through bloody armed struggle.

I am sure the MILF and the GPH could be magnanimous in victory. Ratifying the Bangsamoro Basic Law, despite the many attending problems, would be a great victory for all those who have supported MILF-GPH peace process, especially when we factor in a joint management approach. I wish the two protagonists, and the rest of the peace stakeholders in the country would see that recognizing the IP rights and sharing power and resources with them does not at all diminish the glory of the peace agreement; it makes it even more laudable. Liberating lessons could be learned, for example, from the Joint Management Agreement that resulted when the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority realized that the Tribong Ayta Ambala ng Pastolan was not a rival to economic benefits, but partners in an inclusive peace and development.

I am part of the guilt
and part of the conflict;
but I am also a Mindanawon,
searching for peace. 

Your Honors, I have been a student of the history of the peace process and of the Lumad struggle for dignity, self-determination, and cultural regeneration. In all this, I attest that Mindanao peace can only be achieved—to use the words of Apolinario Mabini—through radical transformation of our mindset and our institutions. In this process, the Christian communities, to which I belong, will have to confess our own portion of the guilt that produced this conflict, so that we can also become part of its lasting resolution. This requires the sincere and effective recognition of the Moro struggle for a more genuine autonomy.

But in this journey, the indigenous peoples must not be left behind. No, they are not free-riders in the formal peace process, and definitely not late-comers in the struggle. They also lost so many lives in a war that they did not even wage.

I humbly but firmly submit, that we listen to the call of the Indigenous Peoples, and that the landmark law, the Indigenous Peoples Right Act, be explicitly guaranteed in the Bangsamoro Basic Law for a more genuinely inclusive, just and lasting peace.

Moro, Kristiyano at Lumad, sama-samang IPRAtupad!

May the God of reconciliation and peace shower us with light that leads to peace.

Gumagalang at nanawagan,

Fr. Albert E. Alejo, SJ
A concerned citizen, a peace advocate

[Paring Bert has worked for Mindanao peace in various capacities—as member of the GPH Reciprocal Working Committee negotiating with the National Democratic Front (NDF); a founding member of the Coalition for Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Peace Advocacy (COMIPPA); member of BRAIN Trust Incorporated that drafted the Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan; founding editor of Asia Mindanaw: Dialogue on Peace and Development; and leader of two wide-ranging public peace consultations—Dialogue Mindanaw under the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and Konsult Mindanaw under the Bishops-Ulama Conference. During the Zamboanga Siege in 2013, Paring Bert negotiated with Kumander Habier Malik, resulting in the release of a hostaged priest and opening a line of communication with the rebel group. Among his MTVs in You Tube is “Meme na Mindanaw: A Lullaby for Peace in Mindanao”]