PEACETALK: We are a nation of communities

[Keynote Speech of Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus G. Dureza at the Global Autonomy, Federalism and Governance Forum 2016 on 19 October 2016 at Dusit Thani hotel in Makati City. Secretary Dureza could not make it as he was a member of the official delegation of President Rodrigo Duterte in his state visits in Brunei and China. This speech was delivered on his behalf by former OPAPP Undersecretary Jose Lorena]

On behalf of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Secretary Jess Dureza, and the OPAPP, I would like to extend our appreciation for this honor to address the Global Autonomy, Federalism, and Governance Forum 2016.

As early as half a year ago, we have heard so many positive things about this forum. First, that it was initiated by the IAG and the KAS, two pioneer organizations that have always shown full support for the peace process. The Konrad Adenauer Stieftung (KAS) Philippines has nurtured the academic life and study of its scholars – some of whom have worked for OPAPP – thereby benefiting the country immensely. The IAG is at the forefront of pushing for good governance through creativity, inclusivity, and critical thinking. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this forum will showcase experiences on governance and federalism through country case studies featuring, among others, the Mindanao and Cordillera scenarios. We cannot emphasize enough how appreciative the Secretary and the President are of this chance to better discuss, and in the process, understand federalism at its core. Apologetic in missing this crucial event, Secretary Dureza is currently accompanying President Rodrigo Duterte on his state visit to Brunei and China.

Please allow us to point out that we, Secretary Jess and myself, are not experts in today’s subject matter, an area as rich and complex as governance. Certainly, we stand to learn much more from the panel of select speakers and experts. I myself am excited to hear from a diverse range of scholars coming from social and political sciences, because I believe that a multi-disciplinary approach always offers the most creative and dynamic solution.

My own, humble contribution to this discourse, then, is to add my experiences in peace work, upon which to draw practical insights. For that is the heart of governance: unlike any other subject or science in the world, we learn best on the field. We craft solutions on the ground; always balancing efficiency and productivity with the bigger demands of democratic life.

The thrust towards nation-building or the concept of “One Nation” is not an idle nor empty one. Prior to colonization, our country was an archipelago of independent states…barangays, as our chroniclers would call it. These barangays were scattered on every island – slowly spreading over seven thousand of them. Each had its own government, set of laws, and economic relations with their fellow barangays or even other foreign states. Chinese merchants traded with the early settlers in the north Luzon, while in the South, interaction between Muslim traders with pre-colonial communities in Sulu and Borneo paved the way for the inevitable entry of Islam.

While these barangays thrived independently from one another, their distinct cultural heritage and economic and political identity also flourished. The concept of a single nation might had entered our ancestors’ minds, but never fully came to the fore. There were federates and sultanates, resembling modern-day United Nations or ASEAN, but it was only meant for the strategic advancement of the economic and military interests of a particular alliance. In some cases, these were product of marital unions.

Rightly or wrongly, the “one nation” we now call the “Philippines” started out as a tool for subjugating all separate barangays under the common rule of one invader. We could not even name ourselves, instead answering to the name of a faraway monarch, “PHILIP.” Though it still banked on the pre-colonial barangays as basic political entities, the Spanish invasion decimated whatever peaceful autonomy these entities previously enjoyed and transferred it to a central authority. Is it any wonder, then, that this young nation named after Philipp of Spain still dreams of crafting its own national identity?

Under the one-nation concept, diversity became a double-edged sword in that it hindered the once-free states from uniting against a common enemy. This was proven by several regional rebellions. Even though a national revolution was inevitable, parochial mentality still persisted – proof of which were several independent republics declared separately from the Philippine Republic of Emilio Aguinaldo, such as the Independent Republic of Negros and the Republic of Tagalog in Batangas.

The concept of nationhood, what it means to truly be a Filipino, was thrust upon us. Not for a second will I resent my identity as a Filipino – but I also will not tolerate erasing our diverse heritage and culture. Undoubtedly, we have a triumphant narrative as Filipinos of the Philippines, but we must afford each other the democratic space and freedom to also be Tagalogs, Ilonggos, Bisayas, Tausugs – all the beautiful, separate-but-equal composites of this archipelago.

The way forward is to be honest. And this is our truth: we are a nation of communities. Yes, we are Filipinos – but we are also Ilocanos, Dabawenos, Bikolanos, Cebuanos, Bangsamoro and so forth. When discussing good governance, local culture is often the culprit. When speaking of nation-building, seven thousand one hundred islands of separation are to be blamed. Why don’t we make this diversity work for us instead – in a way that is just and effective?

In search of a political set-up suited for the Philippines, our national hero Jose Rizal, in one of his writings, said that we should adopt a federal republic. He described it as the “freest” government, akin to a boy happily leaving school after class, or a pendulum swinging freely, unbound for a split second, from the laws of gravity. Federal republic, in Rizal’s words, will free us from this mad ambition to be dominant and tyrannical over other regional ethnicities. Better yet, it expands our imagination beyond traditional concepts of governance or public administration towards a set-up that has been indigenized to our own reality.

For decades, we compete with one another in taking the helm of a central power. Our quest for dominance leaves certain groups powerless, dispossessed, and disenfranchised. In our past, we were forcibly subdued to follow the interests of the dominant culture at the expense of several “minority” groups. Yet right here, right now, an imperial government centered only on the Metro can wreak the very same damage on other regions.

This centralized government cannot address the grassroot demands of these minorities. Their traditions and customs were sidelined, in order that the dominant culture alone may bloom. Their ancestral economic potentials were either neglected or exploited based on the caprices of a national economic framework designed by an imperialist central government. The government’s immediate basic services were hardly felt because these are directly controlled by the central authority – due to the country’s archipelagic nature, even relief goods needed to be transferred from one island to another. The question in people’s minds cannot thus be discounted: “how can some communities live so large, while the rest of us have so little?”

The Bangsamoro movement, for instance, initially aspired to create a separate, independent government. Their struggle is deeply rooted in their enforced submission to a nation and culture they were not originally part of, nor identified with. Two Moro fronts led the fight on this Bangsamoro aspiration, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Soon thereafter, the paradigm of this Bangsamoro aspiration shifted from secession to self-determination through political autonomy. This is attested by the three signed major agreements between the government and the Moro fronts – the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF and the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF.

In Northern Luzon, our Cordillera brethren shared the same ideals with the Bangsamoro. They are pushing for self-determination and an end to the marginalization of the Cordillera people. Leading the fight are their elders in the Cordillera Bodong Administration and the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) that’s now transformed into a socio-economic organization. Initially, they were part of a communist movement seeking to overthrow the government and install significant political, social, and economic reforms. In 1986, Fr. Conrado Balweg led the split with the communist forces and founded CPLA. CPLA in turn, instigated the Cordillera struggle on self-determination and the preservation of their traditional lifeways. Though their bid for self-determination lost twice in referendum, the Cordillera aspiration to lead themselves is still very much alive today.

Our 1987 Philippine Constitution afforded these groups the creation of two autonomous regions – one in Cordillera and another in Muslim Mindanao. The bid for autonomy finally broke into the wall of indifference the dominant culture had built, allowing these minorities to take part in the process of governance. Despite criticism and despite the shortcomings of these autonomous or regional governments, they paved the way for a true discernment and dialogue on federalism, such as the one we have right now. As our friend Steven Rood, the Country Director of The Asia Foundation expressed, “autonomy has been a useful tool to resolve political divisions”.

The concept of local government autonomy is similarly mandated by the 1987 Constitution. A policy and legal framework was initiated to devolve the powers of the central government to local government units. Foremost of this is the enactment of the Local Government Code of 1991 championed by former Senator Nene Pimentel. The Code empowers local governments by delegating to it powers once held by the central government and establishing mechanisms for their sustainability. The Code reflects the ideals of a federal republic that Rizal once envisioned. Not one to rest on his laurels, Senator Nene pushed for more autonomy by being the main voice of federalism, along with Jose Abueva, and soon joined by President Duterte.

Despite these enabling mechanisms, the struggle of our people, “a nation of peoples,” continues. The autonomy granted by our Constitution still depends in large part upon the central government. We need to loosen the grip of this centrality so we can allow space for the blossoming of different and distinct cultural identities of our people. We must break the vicious cycle that has broken the spirit of our people and dwarfed the economic and political development from which they could have found succor. We seek to engage our people to be our active partners in governance. Federalism liberates us from these woes we currently experience and the tyranny of a particular class, group, or sector. That is why President Duterte included it as the one of the cornerstones of his administration.

In fact, and as you have already know, the constitutional change to create a federal form of government has been an integral component of the Bangsamoro roadmap under his administration’s six-point peace and development agenda. These constitutional reforms run side-by-side with the implementation of all the signed peace agreements that previous administrations had entered with the Moro fronts and other Bangsamoro stakeholders. With this already in the pipeline, the proposed Bangsamoro entity can be envisioned as our pilot case study of the workings of a federal state government.

As an offshoot thereto, federalism may correct the previous wrongdoings committed against Bangsamoro, Cordillera, and a myriad of indigenous communities in the Philippines. Federalism can be a just and lasting redress for the powerless, dispossessed, and disenfranchised brought by the forceful submission of foreign powers and majority culture. It brings out the best of our ideals by democratizing the mechanism to allow more people’s engagement in governance. It destroys the seeds of injustices that cultivated hostilities and violence by directly addressing people’s needs at a grassroots level. In the long-term, federalism can institutionalize permanent peace and sustainable development in our country.

HOWEVER, the discussion ON WHY we need to shift to federalism is neither the most important nor most challenging part – this will always be how to read and integrate our people’s attitudes and values into the envisioned new form of government and how to make it work so that it will be a true instrument of nationbuilding and not exacerbate our underlying divisions or disparity.

Changing our current system will all be for naught if our people’s views and behaviors are resistant. We must win our unity through diversity – where our uniqueness creates connectors rather than dividers.

Regionalism is not an obstacle but an indispensable element in the path towards nation-building. What we sow and yield in the countryside, in the localities, contributes to our common aspiration as Filipinos, as a nation of communities. This is the basic ideal of federalism that we want our people to imbibe: putting together the hard work of our people, whatever their cultural, economic and political background – adding to each other’s strengths, complementing each other’s weaknesses in gentle collaboration – towards a peaceful and progressive nation.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”. Our quest for federalism and permanent peace in the land is the test for our recognition as an independent nation among the communities of free nations.

I wish you all a productive meeting and sharing of ideas in the next two days.

Thank you and good morning.