KISSA AND DAWAT: The Bangsamoro saga from A to B

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/19 March) – Cliché as it may sound, the words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “nothing permanent except change”, still rings true today as it was first stated in the period 500+ years before the birth of Christ. In a way, this impermanence reflects the Moro’s journey towards self-governance, ever changing – from as recent as the Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (LTP) in the late 70s to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the latest 1980s until its expansion in 2001 and this year 2019 the transition to the interim Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This political journey and experimentation will continue to evolve until such time the Moros are able to create for themselves an entity that will allow for the realization of their preferred futures, responsive to their collective needs and truly reflective of their multi-ethnic and Islamic heritage.

As the interim BARMM government begins its heavy tasks, let us console ourselves with the words of Pratibha Patil, former president of India, who once said, “The parliament of the country is a repository of the sovereign will of the people and its successful functioning is a joint responsibility of the government of the day and the opposition,” hoping those in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), either government appointees or nominees of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), will work as a team with the people’s interest at heart. Let us console ourselves with the Islamic precept that public office is an “amanah” (trust) from Allah. Those who took up its leadership are legally and morally obliged to deliver on their mandate. Their position is a “haq”, a responsibility to the people and to Almighty Himself. As Muslim, we have to be positive and optimistic, because the qadr (will) of Allah have been stated even before the world was created. Therefore, our success is a matter of His Divine Mercy and Grace.

From ARMM to BARMM, from A to B

The movement from ARMM to BARMM, or from A to B, is not just a change of the guards from one regional administration to another, one party to another; but it is also a transition from revolutionaries to the bureaucrats, of those who fought for decades believing that Moros deserve better than what we already have and now, they are put into position to put meat into the big words. It can be said that BARMM is the latest political experiment, one that is touted by its framers and advocates as more reflective of the Moro’s style of governance and responsive to their collective needs. Thus, the movement from A to B, is also a movement from a presidential-type regional structure into a parliamentary-ministerial one. We may have early experience with parliamentary system during the Marcos regime with some Moro politicos having direct experience still around. We may have ministerial heritage from our sultanate governments of yoke. But together, this is new to us as Moros and as Filipinos.

I would like to make one thing clearer. The political experimentation in the Bangsamoro is not just a Moro or Mindanao issue, it is a national issue. When the Philippines included the Moro nation or Bangsamoro within its nation-state, it took both its strengths and weaknesses, its ups and downs, its good and not-so-good aspects. Therefore, it is morally and legally obliged to provide within its national polity, space and opportunities for the redress of their grievances and expressions of their aspirations. In short, when Bangsamoro develops and progresses, it will have positive impact on the country as a whole. Therefore, it is the state’s legal responsibility and the nation’s moral accord to help the Moros make its experimentation works. Conversely, imagine its impact on national peace and development if they are denied and restricted of their inherent rights.

Laboratory of Democracy

I would like to believe that Moro’s political experimentation is akin to or is in the shadow of the “Laboratories of Democracy” popularized in the United States, our former colonial master. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in New State Ice Co. versus Liebmann (1932) described this phrase in the following words: “That a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country” and, based on the 10th amendment to the US constitution, “all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”. LTP was created by Marcos unilaterally, without the participation of the secessionist movement and so it was deemed a failure from the beginning. Thereafter, ARMM was created with the participation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later on, considered a failed experiment by no less than President Noynoy Aquino. The MILF wanted something better than ARMM, thus BARMM was created.

So, if we removed the aged-old biases, the Moro’s experimentation with self-governance is actually a healthy, peaceful and legal exercise right within the framework of people’s sovereignty and national integrity, in this case, the right of the Moro minority to express their desire and craft a regional government that is suited to their culture, addresses historical injustices, and provides public services that are relevant and suited to their context. Arguably the only laboratory of democracy in the Philippines right now, BARMM can showcase more meaningful local empowerment and decentralization, which can later on inform the evolution of Cordilleran autonomy up north and the future federal structure as the country moves towards a federal system. Thus, BARMM is both structural and political innovation in a bid to make governance meaningful and relevant to its people.

In the words of Michael S. Greve of the American Enterprise Institute, “it conveys a pragmatic spirit that naturally appeals to a nation of compulsive tinkerers, and it connotes equally popular sentiments in favor of localism and decentralization”.

Is BARMM the final experiment?

Are we reaching the “zed” of political experimentation? This is the real challenge for the current leadership in the BARMM – how to demonstrate and make BARMM works. On one hand, this is the hope of its framers, advocates and those who voted in its favor in the plebiscite this year. On the other hand, this is also the lingering doubt among its critics and skeptics, how different will this be from the previous ones.

The BTA has been constituted and its interim cabinet appointed. At the outset, it is inappropriate to judge whether it can deliver or not for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, the parties to this peace agreement, the Philippine government and the MILF, have committed to a multi-year process. The 3-year interim stage is just the beginning of this multi-year process. At every critical stage, parties have explicit commitments to deliver.
  • Secondly, the process is also twin-fold – governance on one hand and normalization on the other hand. For example, the government delivers on the plebiscite and the creation of the BARMM. In turn, the MILF will normalize 35% of its military force, meaning armed combatants transitioning to civilian life.
  • Thirdly, at the end of this multi-year twin-fold process is an exit agreement, both parties signing a document saying all what they have committed have been delivered.

Thus, the whole process from the approval of the Bangsamoro Organic Law to the exit agreement may take at least ten years. It is only ten years after that we are in the position to say, to evaluate, whether or not BARMM has been a successful experiment or not; whether or not we have reached the “zed” of political experimentation.

The critical role of citizens and leaders

Meanwhile, taking strength from our Islamic heritage, the Moro constituency is legally and morally bound to support the government of the day. We are taught that our bay’ah (pledge) is defined as the constituents’ allegiance to their leaders – to follow the leaders as long as they are on the right path and to alert them when they deviate. The pledge stays as long as the leadership behaves and operates within the norms of governance stipulated by law.

I reckon, the popular support can be in terms of citizen engagement, individually and collectively, through participation in public platforms, peoples and nongovernment organizations and civil society. Mechanisms for this includes the “citizen participation in governance” as advocated by the United Nations Development Program. It behooves the BARMM to adopt a policy framework for citizenship engagement, and provide an environment and incentives to encourage, protect and sustain the engagement.

Democracy flourishes when citizens and leaders are engaged in mutual consultation and consensus-building, and share the responsibility of realizing collective aspirations and futures. This whole process of engagement, from public dialogue to consensus-building, is more than structural and legal reforms. This requires cultural and moral reformation, and transformation of our collective energies to drive our collective agenda forward. American scholar Warren Bennis describes this synergy as, “followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.” As stated in the Holy Qur’an, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Verse 11, Chapter 13: Ar-Ra’d). Behind the wisdom of this Qur’anic verse lies a critical foundation to the elusive success of the Moro’s quest for self-governance.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue).