PAGDARO SA KALINAW: Federalism’s fallacy and the Bangsamoro red herring – Towards Collaborative Filipino Democracy

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 12 March) – Red Herring – something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.

Secession – the act of separating from a nation or state and becoming independent.

The tortured road traveled by the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has many considering the landscape and discourse on the degrees and levels of political “asymmetry”. As political elites contemplate what kind of autonomy might be granted to the proposed Bangsamoro Government, the specters of a federalism, and even secession, have become sources of debate and contention beyond the usual technical policy discussions. The nation now confronts an electable presidential candidate, Rody Duterte, a friend of revolutionary leaders and one of the most outspoken promoters of decentralization, taking Federalism on a national “road show” to drum up support for his populist candidacy.

These debates beg the question of whether decentralizing power away from the Manila center of gravity can in fact produce better governance in the country. Will providing greater control, resources and tax bases to regional and provincial territories necessarily establish more accountable and effective governance? It seems that quite the opposite could occur, especially where political dynasties already exist. Federalism, and in its extreme form, secession, would seem just as likely to give established local political elites less external accountability and greater control over the communities they dominate, usually through the coercive triplex of Guns, Goons and Gold. And this is a characteristic of Philippine democracy found throughout the nation to a greater or lesser degree, neither unique nor particular to Mindanao which hosts the center of gravity of the major revolutionary movements.

At the level of the current Bangsamoro peace process, some openly doubt the genuine commitment of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to keep their commitment to the territorial integrity of the Philippines, seeing the BBL as a Trojan horse cloaking their true desire for full independence. These people, often motivated by self-righteous patriotism, ignorance or thinly veiled anti-Islamic bias, argue against greater autonomy for the Bangsamoro community. Their rationale is that the Bangsamoro Basic Law simply represents capitulation onto a slippery slope towards secession and independence. Politicians espousing this line of anti-Bangsamoro thinking demand that the Bangsamoro leadership hold to the gold-standard of absolute loyalty to the Philippine state, ignoring the fact that the proposed object of patriotic loyalty (the Philippine state) has been experienced by many in the Philippines, especially the Muslim minority, as destructive, dysfunctional, oppressive, corrupt and ineffective.

This leaves a dilemma: on one side, greater decentralization of power (promoted through federalism and Bangsamoro autonomy) may lead to greater oppression by local elites; on the other side, retaining centralized functions of power (by applying conservative “constitutional” restrictions on federalist/autonomous efforts) looks like maintenance of an unjust status quo. However, playing on fears of “secession” to undermine the Bangsamoro Peace Process is a red herring that distracts us from the true issues of social justice and reconciliation that underlie the Bangsamoro struggle. The Bangsamoro Basic Law, like the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, should be legalized because they both represent inter-governmental treaties between the Philippine government and Indigenous First Nations aimed at redressing historical injustices committed by the modern state against pre-modern, but no less developed, societies.

Meanwhile promoting Federalism as a simplistic cure to the nations’ political ills is a fallacy. Rather, the focus of the debates over decentralization and autonomy should inquire into the quality of social justice and democracy, rather than the quantity or extent of its coverage. Sensationalized grandstanding about the constitutionality of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the number of voters who will be present in a plebiscite, or the land area under the territorial jurisdiction of the Philippine state are smokescreens that obscure the need for a deeper national discussion.

The fear of Bangsamoro secession is also a distraction, not because it could never happen, but because secession is occurring and is welcomed by the Philippine government. With around 10 percent of the Philippine population working overseas, Filipinos have “voted with their feet” to find greener political and economic pastures. In addition to OFWs spread around the world, there are another 3.4 million American citizens of Filipino descent in the U.S. alone, which is greater than the 3.2 million population of the proposed Bangsamoro Territory. When you add in the millions of Filipinos who have naturalized in other countries, especially Europe, Australia and Canada, it is not unrealistic to say that nearly 15-20 percent of the Philippine population has already “seceded” by immigration or working abroad. Thus, it appears as a double standard when powerful politicians demand allegiance to the Philippine flag from the Bangsamoro, yet maintain properties in California and send their children to college in New York.

Thus, questions surrounding identity, Bangsamoro autonomy, decentralized federalism and the massive exodus of Filipinos to other nations are inter-related and should be seen for what they are: indicators of deep socio-economic discontent and political dissonance in Filipinos’ experience of leadership and the institutions of governance. Antidotes exist to reduce the fight or flight responses of armed struggle or external migration as forms of political and/or economic liberation. But these are also distasteful medications that include basic reforms in the judiciary, increasing transparency and freedom of information, eliminating bureaucracy and ending political dynasties. All these efforts are resisted by political and economic elites because they would fundamentally alter their short term ability to benefit from the status quo of injustice and poverty, in spite of the fact that a rising tide of social and economic justice would lift all boats to greater prosperity in the long run.

This brings us to the nexus between identity, economy and governance and the reality that the institutions of Philippine democracy are missing something fundamental in order to be effective – trust. The question of trust is connected to deep cultural dynamics which are not captured in western democratic discourse based on competitive political theories and winner-take-all economic processes. Thus, the current debate on federalism and the Bangsamoro Basic Law offer a unique opportunity for deeper cultural dialogue about the re-formation of a truly collaborative Filipino democracy and the re-creation of an economy of abundance rather than markets of scarcity.

Let’s not miss the opportunity.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jeremy Simons is Training Director at iEmergence Incorporated, partnering with the Lumad of Mindanao for cultural renewal and building capacity for community-based restorative justice. He also teaches as adjunct professor of conflict transformation at Asian Theological Seminary in Quezon City. He has lived for over 20 years in the Philippines and can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed here are his alone.)