PEACETALK: Making the Choice: A Former Moro Peace Negotiator’s Perspective

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNew / 20 February) — Federalism is not the panacea for all the ills of the Philippine State. To think so would be a fallacy. But neither has the existing unitary state system addressed the historical, social, political and economic ills that torment the country despite the hyperbolic claim of former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, who stands staunchly opposed to charter change and federalism, that the 1987 unitary state constitution of the Philippines is “the best in the world.”

That said, the shift to federalism is still the best option for a country stuck in a cul-de-sac and unable to forge ahead to a more progressive and developed state because it is mired in unitary statism genetically bred in the womb of colonialism.

A political science pundit has correctly pointed out that federalism requires political maturity.  Without political maturity, he argues, it would be well-nigh impossible to erect the institutional structures necessary to establish a federal state edifice. We agree with this thesis. These institutional structures are not only physical edifices but psychological and cultural factors as well that naturally emerge from how diverse peoples in a given state perceive their histories, how these histories shape their respective identities, and, as a consequence thereof, give rise to their innate belief in self-determination, all of which, albeit paradoxical because of diversity, inspire and draw them together to found and establish a political UNION in the form of a federal state for purposes of  cooperation, collective growth and development as well as unified defense against external and internal threats.

In relation to this, note how the United States of America and Great Britain both speak of a ‘Union’ – the US in its federal constitution (“perfect union”) and Great Britain with regard to its national flag, the ‘Union Jack’ – when referring to their federalized states. Great Britain, a parliamentary monarchy, does not, of course, define itself as a federal state unlike the republican US; yet, for all intents and purposes, England’s political union with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland operates as a federation under the rubric “United Kingdom.”

‘Union of Diversity’

Federalism, therefore, is appropriately a ‘union of diversity’ and not ‘unity (where unity is meant conformity) in diversity’.

The problem with the Philippine state is that its political development has never graduated from the colonial state established by Spanish and American colonialisms. Thus, it remained rigidly unitary that imposed uniformity on the diverse ethno-linguistic peoples that comprise the Philippines for purposes of centralized control as in the time of colonialism. This imposed uniformity through the adoption and enforcement of the doctrine of ‘one state, one nation’ has effaced all and any trace of expression of nationhood on the part of the diverse peoples and restricted their identity expressions to ‘ethnicity’ and ‘cultural nuances’. The unitary state has tabooed any inkling of nationhood because of its ‘one state, one nation’ diktat that fallaciously merges state and nation.

Having been conditioned by ‘one state, one nation’ since the time the Spaniards began calling the “indios” Filipinos near the end of their colonial rule and the Americans pursuing the same with their creation of the unitary state now called the Philippine Republic in 1946, the diverse peoples comprising the Philippine state have lost all sense of being nations and have come to accept the ‘one state, one nation’ diktat of unitary statism. Consequently, ‘Filipino’ has become both state and national identity all rolled into one.

Forced homogenization through a common language, Tagalog, which, through legislative fiat, had been officially proclaimed as the ‘Filipino national language’ has contributed to a large extent to the erosion of the national identities of the diverse peoples. Further in pursuit thereof, Philippine nation-state builders have placed a stigma on any manifestation of  self-determination as dangerous ‘divisiveness’, ‘anti-Philippine nationalism’ and even a ‘national security threat’, as if Philippine nationalism itself did not originate from Spanish ‘creoleism.’ (Note: The Spanish creoles or mestizos and full-blooded Spaniards born and residing in the Philippines during the colonial period were the ones called ‘filipinos’ with a small ‘f’, not the natives who were referred to as ‘indios’.)    Hence, nowhere can even a tiny spark of organized assertion for self-determination be seen among the diverse peoples except perhaps for intermittent outbursts of ethnocentrism in particular circumstances such as Philippine elections or when feuds arise between and among ethnic groups inside the Bilibid National Penitentiary organized as ethnic gangs or in school campuses.

In a very real sense, ‘one state, one nation’ is essentially what underpins ‘Filipinism’.  Over time, ‘Filipinism’ has inextricably embedded itself and permeated the psychological make-up of the diverse peoples of the Philippine state. This, as a result, has placed them under the dominance of the present political culture begotten by colonialism, which exacts absolute loyalty to the unitary state in the name of Philippine nationalism and nation-state building. And to put it in an analytical perspective, it is this political culture begotten by colonialism that has in fact perpetuated the unitary state ruled by Philippine elites, the veritable successors of foreign colonial rulers, whose monopoly of political and economic power has reduced the Philippine Republic into an oligarchic state, or, to use an old term, an impoverished Third World ‘Banana Republic’.

Bangsamoro as exception

The Bangsamoro people are an exception. The Moros have never on their own volition accepted being part of the Philippine nation-state, and this is evident in their centuries-old armed resistance to assimilation and integration. With Islam, they have withstood acculturation by colonialism and the mishmash of ‘Filipino national culture’ that Filipino state builders cobbled together in pursuit of ‘one state, one nation’.

The Moros believe that the greatest injustice done to them, and this is incontrovertible, was their forced incorporation into the Philippine state at a time when they were defending their sovereignty and independence from US colonization. This unresolved problem in fact lies at the very heart of the present conflict that has ramified into a mosaic of intricately intertwined issues we now call the ‘Bangsamoro Question’.

Reduced to a simple definition, thus, the ‘Bangsamoro Question’ is the long-standing clash between right to self-determination on one hand and the doctrine of ‘one state, one nation’ on the other.  If Moros today even accept their being Filipinos as a compelling reality, it is in the context of citizenship in the Philippine state, but not as a nation. Their unbroken and relentless assertion for the right to self-determination as a separate and distinct nation as they did in the 1924 Zamboanga Declaration is not echoed by other peoples in the Philippine state, except perhaps by some indigenous peoples in the Cordilleras who belatedly learned the wisdom of it from the Moros’ resistance experience. And this is what makes the Bangsamoro people unique, a sui generis, in the fabric of Philippine statehood. This is also why they demand an asymmetrical relationship in any dealings and association with the Philippine state within which they find themselves a captive colonized nation since incorporation.

Today, the most that the Philippine unitary state can concede in the light of the emergence of the movement for federalism is to come to terms with the prospect of federalism with some form of regional identity, which does not even connote nationhood identity but geography.

Not federalism 

This explains why even in its model of federalism, those who are ostensibly its most ardent supporters in the Philippine Congress, cannot  imagine nations coming together to form a federation because they cannot go out of the box of ‘one state, one nation’. So, their model of federalism, which they cunningly call the “Filipino model”, is the same regionalization of the country divided into autonomous regions (akin to ARMM) with expanded delegated authority from the central unitary state government, thereby making such a form of ‘federalism’ only a notch higher than the current regional administrative set-up of the unitary state. Still, this is not federalism wherein there is shared sovereignty between the federal government (the Center) and the state governments of peoples-cum-nations comprising the federation. This is not the federalism where the peoples themselves and their respective territories become component states of the federal set-up inherently equipped with inviolable state rights and share internal sovereign powers side-by-side with the federal government as should be defined in a federal constitution that translates this UNION of peoples-cum-nations into a tangible state.

Significantly, in the middle of this raging controversy on whether to federalize or not-to-federalize is President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, whose tenacious advocacy of federalism leaves much to be desired because of his emphatic promotion of the French-type of government, which is peripheral to systemic change and which is not even federalism simply because France is a unitary state and not a federal state.

At any rate, he has recently and boldly announced that if the Filipinos fail to support federalism because they are not prepared to accept it, as he recently said in a speech, then Mindanao will go it alone. This prospect has admittedly titillated many Mindanawans, including the Bangsamoro, who have come to detest the monopoly of powers by the Philippine oligarchy to which they have given the obnoxious tag ‘Manila Imperialism’. Come to think of it, though, we are baffled by what the President means. For, it would be quite unthinkable to have a country that is arbitrarily half-unitary state and half-federal state. Regardless of whether or not this is just mere impulsive rhetoric, there is no such ‘mongrel’, no such ‘mestizo’, on the face of the earth.

The only possibility for Mindanao to shift to federalism sans Luzon and the Visayas is if it becomes an independent entity. This means it has to secede from the Philippines and form a separate country. Then and only then can Mindanao go it alone and establish a separate federal state. But under the present unitary state constitution, no way can this happen.  And if President Duterte persistently hammers away at this issue of a separate Mindanao, he is courting civil war similar to the American Civil War in 1860-1865 known as the ‘War between the States’ or ‘War between the North and the South’.

Judging by its implications, “Mindanao going it alone” as Duterte warns, is indeed a strange way for a sitting President to say – a president  who occasionally performs the histrionic gesture of kissing the Philippine  national flag in front of an audience to show his fervent love for this country.

In any case, though we may look askance at Duterte’s nebulous perspective on federalism, we should give him credit for bringing the long-dormant issue of decentralization into the national discourse that is creating tremors in the status quo. Moreover, whether he earnestly means it or not or whether this is just part of political gimmickry, he has refocused national attention to the historical injustices done to the Bangsamoro people.

What ought to be

In light of this national melee attending the issue of whether or not to shift to federalism, the question that occupies everyone’s mind – or at least for those who seriously think about it – is what ought to be the position of the Bangsamoro given the befuddling situation that portends of an amorphous future.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) hovers between life and death in the Philippine Congress because of questions of unconstitutionality. But even if it comes to life and becomes part of the unitary state constitution, this BBL will be a legislative parody of the original birthed by the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

In the same vein, in a federal constitution, granting such federalism does not fall into the category of “false news”, a parodic BBL will not be sufficient enough to classify and therefore operationalize the Bangsamoro as an authentic, viable state of a federal republic. Such political construct will be an incongruity, an anachronism, in the context of federalism. For it is unthinkable to see the Bangsamoro in a Philippine federal state setting having powers less than the ARMM. Or, say, even like the ARMM that one finds in the current unitary state where, for example, the Bangsamoro Government of the future is even denied of police powers for internal security – a power that is intrinsic to self-governance in the context of decolonization and normalization of an area plagued by conflict. Nothing would gladden the hearts of those who oppose Bangsamoro right to self-determination than seeing this happen.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel as the adage goes. This means the peace agreements themselves, bolstered by consensual inclusivity involving all Moro stakeholders, should, by this time, be both the foundational and architectural framework of the Bangsamoro position. This means the Bangsamoro has to stand firm on not giving up the gains of the peace negotiations and should not compromise these gains again and again leading to the virtual surrender and nullification of what had been incrementally achieved both in the peace negotiations and the Moro armed struggle.

Gains from peace agreements

So what are these gains that have been conceded by the Philippine state and are contained in the peace agreements? Let’s review them briefly. These are the recognition of Moro identity, which, in effect, is de jure acceptance of Moro nationhood status; Moro territorial homeland; genuine Moro self-rule; Moro proprietorship of the natural resources of their homeland; and Moro determination of final political status and future. These are all explicit concessions dispersed throughout the peace agreements, the totality of which is the CAB and not just our empty claims.

In other words, based on these gains, the Philippine state, whether it is unitary or federal in form, has to deal with the Bangsamoro thenceforth not as a region but as a nation inherently possessing the right to self-determination under international law and by virtue of the signed peace agreements witnessed thereto by foreign sovereign states and the international community.

The post-agreement reconfiguration of the totality of relationship between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine state thus should be ‘State plus Nation’ (read Gideon Gottlieb and the writer’s monograph, “Deconstructing the Concept of Nation-State: From the Perspective of the Bangsamoro”, in the Philippine Sociological Review, 2016) expressed in terms of a federacy between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine state.

Federacy, as enunciated by the conceptual paradigm of Stefan Wolff, a renowned German political scientist who specializes in international security and the management, settlement and prevention of ethnic conflicts, is generally defined as a federal arrangement and asymmetric associative relationship between a bigger state entity and a smaller nation within it without necessarily subdividing entirely the bigger state into component states as in ‘normal’ federalism.

Suffice to say, in the case of the Bangsamoro, to effect this federacy, it has to be reflected and/or entrenched in the constitution of the unitary state through an amendment of said constitution; or, if it is going to be in the new constitution of the federal state, the Bangsamoro has to be a full-fledged territorial state component of the federation moored on its nationhood status and not on the classification of being a mere geographical locality. If the other peoples or geographic areas in the Philippine state want to be called regions, then so be it. But for the Bangsamoro, they have to be treated as a nation. This is where asymmetrical relationship comes into play.

It is all there spelled out with clarity in the peace agreements to which the Philippine government is a signatory.

As to their internal differences, which Filipino politicians harp on as an excuse to condescendingly demonstrate that Moros are incapable of unity, leave those to the Moro people to sort out among themselves. Inclusivity on the basis of equity is a crucial element in preserving Moro nationhood.

The fact is, external intervention, invariably animated by the colonialist policy of ‘divide and rule’, has brought about divisiveness and jealousies among the Moros. This has to end. But allow the Moros the space, the conducive environment, so to speak, to end these disruptive glitches. By now, the Moros ought to have realized that it is by virtue of their nationhood identity regained through armed struggle and the peace agreements can they legitimately and collectively invoke their right to self-determination under international law, which, however, cannot and will not be afforded them as separate ethnic sub-nations of the Bangsamoro ‘going it alone’ on their own.

Consistency in position, dedicated commitment

To reiterate, there is no need to reinvent the wheel or construct a new one. It is all in the peace agreements. Conceding to more compromises – compromises that are treated like a bottomless iced tea in a popular eatery – in exchange for paltry concessions will not see to the fruition of our people’s aspiration for self-determination much less the implementation of the peace agreements. On the contrary, every post-agreement compromise is a step backward from the signed agreements. It takes consistency in position and dedicated commitment on the part of the Bangsamoro leaders to make the other party to the agreements, the Philippine Government, realize that Bangsamoro leaders mean serious business.

On the part of the Philippine Government, regardless of who sits at the helm, what is called for are sincerity, sense of justice, and political will translated in the determination to implement the peace agreements to the letter.

Absent sincerity, sense of justice and political will, pacification efforts will amount to nothing. Martial law and more militarization in Moroland or such other draconian counter-insurgency applications will not put an end to defiance and resistance. Learn from the Marcos experience. Coopting one Moro revolutionary organization into the ‘one state, one nation’ mainstream will in the long run only spawn another Moro revolutionary organization more radical than the previous.

And corollary to the foregoing, this will open wider the porous borders of the Bangsamoro to foreign extremist elements more than willing enough to explore and exploit the volatile condition on the ground for their own purposes.

Reconciliation will be superficial and thus elusive. Peace without justice will be a farce as the vicious cycle of violent resistance will come full circle and repeat itself endlessly as it has for the last five centuries or so.

This is the hard lesson that should have been learned from history, both past and current. Apparently, no one has learned this lesson yet even by those from among us.

In conclusion, the Duterte administration is hard put to carry out the constitutional transformation of the unitary state to a federal state in view of the mounting opposition against charter change let alone the very idea of federalism.

The Bangsamoro people should not be drawn into the vortex of this political conflict that has taken on the color of deleterious partisanship, though admittedly more favorable advantages will be gained if genuine federalism is established. But whether or not this comes to fruition, the Moros already have the greater advantage compared to the other peoples of the Philippine state in that they have the peace agreements to stand on that unequivocally attest to their nationhood status and thus reaffirm their right to self-determination.

It is just a matter, therefore, of earnestly holding on firmly to these agreements without entering into more desultory compromises that degrade said agreements.

That being the case, even if the unitary state is preserved or Filipino-style ‘federalism’ comes into being, the Bangsamoro people can always demand for a federacy with the Philippine state along the lines of the ‘State-plus-Nation’ concept. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Robert Maulana Marohombsar Alonto was a member of the peace panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that negotiated the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro signed in 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014. He was also a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that drafted the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that the Aquino administration did not pass).