PEACETALK: Why we need a strong autonomy for the Bangsamoro

(An appeal to the Members of the Bicameral Conference Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law by Guiamel Alim, chair of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society in Cotabato City)

We, the civil society in the Bangsamoro, representing peace-loving communities therein, strongly believe that the Bangsamoro is an opportunity, rather than a problem. It only takes one to understand where the Bangsamoro is coming from — their history, struggle and aspirations. From demanding a separate state from the Philippines after having been politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized in their own homeland, the Bangsamoro now settles to live in a self-governing entity within the sovereignty of the Philippine state.

The grant of meaningful autonomy as envisaged by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) in the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is a tacit recognition of the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination, an inherent right denied them for so long a time.  A self-governing entity is the right way to address the legitimate grievances of the Bangsamoro stemming from historical injustices, land dispossession, human rights violations—issues that served as the rallying points in the decades-old armed  conflict.

In the BBL drafted by the BTC, safeguards are built in, providing balance between ensuring on one hand that social justice is afforded the Bangsamoro, and on the other hand, respecting the sovereign power of the state.  This is indeed the right step towards addressing the roots of violent conflict in Mindanao. By recognizing the legitimate cause for self-determination through meaningful autonomy, the Bangsamoro becomes more of an opportunity and an ally of national development rather than a problem. This can eventually lead to the process of healing towards national unity and reconciliation, a state of affairs we all have wanted to see for so long.

However, the BBL bills passed on 3rdReading by Congress have substantially reduced the powers of the proposed Bangsamoro Government envisioned in the proposed BBL drafted by the BTC.  They have transferred a substantial number of the exclusive powers in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and found in the BTC-drafted bill to the reserved powers of the National Government or to the concurrent powers that will be shared by the Central Government and the Bangsamoro Government.  This is not to mention those that were either deleted or reduced.  In the House of Representatives, the reserved powers of the  National Government have increased from 9 to 20.  The list of concurrent powers has increased from 14 to 21, thereby reducing the exclusive powers for the Bangsamoro Government to nearly half, if we bring together those amendments from both chambers of Congress.

Even more concerning is the amendment that changes the whole concept of exclusive powers, by subjecting the exclusive powers of the Bangsamoro Government to not only the Constitution, but also to national laws. This further diminishes the Bangsamoro Government’s power as a self-governing entity and effectively throws away the very essence of meaningful autonomy, as policies decided by the National Government are made effective and controlling in the exercise of exclusive powers in the Bangsamoro territory.

We need to remind ourselves that the new Basic Law is aimed at enhancing the power of the autonomous government to meet its noble objectives of improving the lives of the people, end violence and foster national unity and reconciliation.  The structural infirmities of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) need to be addressed, and those powers already granted to it should be transferred to the new political entity.  This would allow the Bangsamoro Government to build on what has already been granted to the ARMM and strengthen structures and systems that have proven to be challenging in the last 28 years of the autonomy arrangement.

A weak autonomous government will lead to failure. It would not be able to address the challenges that the ARMM Government and the people in its territorial jurisdiction have been facing– poor service delivery, unclear delineation of powers between the regional government and the local governments, patronage, communal land conflict, the threat of violent extremism, among others. We cannot replace a weak autonomous government with another weak autonomous government. We want one that has learned from the lessons of the ARMM “experiment” and will lead to a successful autonomy arrangement that is more responsive to the challenges of governance and development, including those abovementioned.

It is for these reasons that we in the Consortium of Bangsamoro  Civil Society  (CBCS) are  appealing  to the honorable members of the bicameral conference committee to restore those deleted or transferred powers of the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous government.  We also ask that there be a real grant of powers and that this be expressed by allowing the Bangsamoro to exercise its powers with minimal intervention from National Government.

We also appeal to His Excellency, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte to exert extra efforts within his constitutional authority to help pass an autonomy law that is compliant with the peace agreements, and is vested with substantial powers as a way of addressing historical injustices that he had promised to address.

Specifically, we call on the legislative and executive departments of the National Government to work out the passage of a BBL that:

  1. restores the list of powers, as agreed upon in the CAB;
  2. allows meaningful autonomy and real self-governance, with minimal intervention and imposition from National Government;
  3. does not take away powers already granted to the ARMM, but builds on these powers
  4. returns effective control over and benefits of the natural resources in the Bangsamoro territory to the Bangsamoro, as pronounced by the President himself on June 16, 2018 in his Eid’l Fit’r speech; and
  5. provides for a high level of fiscal autonomy with the block grant being released regularly and automatically to the Bangsamoro Government.

Other problematic provisions should also be addressed, in keeping with the campaign promise of the President to address historical injustices to the Moro people.

Enacting a BBL that addresses the root causes of the conflict and provides for meaningful autonomy is not only good for the Bangsamoro. It is also an opportunity for the Philippine Government to show that it is able to address violent conflicts, such as that in Mindanao, through diplomatic means. It likewise allows the majority Filipinos to show that they are able to embrace diversity and willing to participate in a project that aims to resolve a centuries-old problem stemming from historical injustices, and bring about human security, social justice, progressive growth and equitable development nearer to reality for segments of society that have been deprived of these.

Together, let us build a strong autonomy.

Together, let us strive for peace.