PEACETALK: Different voices and positions By Bong Montesa

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/24 February) — In Palace says ARMM failed experiment, Government lays down, in clearest terms, its theory on ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) and why postponing the ARMM elections is needed.

Government’s view.

For the Government, the ARMM is a “failed sub-state, a failed experiment” and this failure of the promise of autonomy, this failure of governance in ARMM is one of the primary causes of “rebellion and hopelessness”. Since Government wants to have durable peace in Mindanao, reforming the ARMM -making sure it delivers on its promise to bring a better and more secure life for the people – is an imperative.

Presidential spokesman Lacierda says:

The main reason for the President postponing the elections is for reforms to take place. It can only happen when it is postponed and we appoint decent officials to have a clean slate.

The Government strategy then is to appoint “decent” officials who will implement the reforms needed. Foremost of these reforms would be to  “to stop the practice of using captive voting blocs that keeps regional leaders in power and enables them to sell voting blocs to the highest bidder in national elections”.

MinDA Chair Luwalhati Antonino supports this view: “The Mindanao Economic Authority (MinDA) is supporting the postponement of the August elections in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, saying re-setting the polls would be an answer to the desire to see genuine reforms, particularly in governance (in ARMM).”

Akbayan Mindanao Commission Tom Villarin, in his note “Beyond Legalese on ARMM election postponement,” shares this analysis:

“What is sorely lacking now in ARMM are stable institutions and leadership within the context of massive poverty, lawlessness, and resentment over failed attempts of the central government to resolve the Bangsamoro question. PNoy has an opportunity at hand to rectify and reform the ARMM over the next five year period. Having elections now would be meaningless; institutions need reform/overhaul if needed, both from the inside (ARMM) and outside (national government/Filipino people). PNoy needs to have a clear policy framework that cements sustainable peace, build strong institutions for governance, and provide an immediate, emergency lifeline to the people in ARMM. Democracy is only worth its salt if tasted; elections now only tickle the imagination of a few who wants the proverbial gold pot at the end of a rainbow.”

There are oppositors, of course. Fr. Jun Mercado, in his GMA News blog “Follow the Law”, talks about the “fig leaf” of respecting the right of the people to elect their leaders:

“But ARMM elections (for all its failings) provide the mythical fig leaf. By doing away the ARMM elections and directly appointing an OIC, Malacañang removes the proverbial fig leaf! It removes the little cover that gives semblance to people’s choice of their officials in an autonomous structure based on the long struggle for self-determination. The government’s nakedness is, then, exposed for all to behold!”

For veteran Mindanao journalist Patricio P. Diaz, one of the reasons for the failure of ARMM is “patronage” and to postpone the elections and appoint leaders in the ARMM would be perpetuating patronage:

“And, most critical, too: The President and other parties in power should keep their hands off the ARMM election. Let the ARMM leaders form their own parties and decide who to field as candidates. Patronage – the worst under the Arroyo regime – has spoiled ARMM leadership. True to his election platform, President Aquino can do the change – wean ARMM leaders from patronage — by telling himself and other parties in power not to politically intervene.

Has Antonino realized that by her advocacy she is recommending the perpetuation of patronage – presidential and political — in ARMM and, consequently, its problems?  Has she realized that she is considering ARMM as being under the umbrella of MinDA in disregard of ARMM autonomy?”

Political analyst and election law expert Ramon Casiple sees the move or postponement as weakening the democratic argument and the rule of law:

“The big surprise in the scenario is the passionate advocacy of some non-Moro groups–both Mindanaoans and those in Manila, including those who fashionably termed themselves as democrats, liberals, pro-Moro, and/or anti-imperial Manila freedom fighters–for Malacañang to intervene, for the umpteenth time, in ARMM elections.

The irony here is that they are now arguing for President Aquino to appoint an OIC when they were demanding previously against presidential intervention in internal Moro affairs. For sure, appointing an OIC will be a first in any administration. In itself, it will be a setback to the cause of Moro self-determination and to the cause of Philippine democracy itself.

The disruption of the regularity of elections–without the existence of extraordinary conditions that justify it–weakens the democratic argument and undermines the rule of law. The synchronization of elections–avowed basis for the OIC appointment–rests on specious and tongue-in-cheek foundations.”

Time out. Respond to interests.

I am an avid fan of basketball and one of the devices in basketball is a device called the “timeout”. When the momentum is going the direction of the opposing team and we want to break the momentum, we call for timeout. Timeout breaks the cycle, gives everyone an opportunity to rest and recoup their energies and most importantly, it gives space for the crafting of a new strategy, a new set play to break the enemy’s momentum and to score points. This is what we need in this conversation over the ARMM.

There is enough consensus despite the seemingly disparate views. Overall, we need a solution that addresses all of the following interests:

1. How do we make sure that ARMM governance is transparent and accountable?

How do we stop the cycle of malgovernance and misgovernance? How do we make sure that what happened in past will not be repeated and that, under this new administration, the Bangsamoro people’s right to identity, security, livelihood, and basic services, i.e. education, health, housing, etc. will now be addressed?

2. In making ARMM transparent and accountable, how do we make sure that the right of the governed to freely, fairly and regularly elect their leaders is not denied or thwarted?

While good governance is a value, democracy, rule of law and human rights is also a value. How do we make sure that our good intentions to make ARMM work will not inadvertently destroy democracy and the rule of law in the ARMM? How do we make sure that our interventions in the ARMM will do no harm?

3. In making ARMM transparent and accountable and democracy working, how do we make sure that autonomy is strengthened?

How do we put a stop to the system of patronage and the perception that imperial Manila (irrespective of administration) dictates how ARMM should be governed?

A possible solution must address multiple values and interests.

We need a solution that addresses the multiple values of transparency and good governance, democracy and non-intervention.

One possible solution is to continue with the elections and to do everything to make sure that the elections are free, fair and honest. This is to address the democracy argument. But this also means that the voters’ list will be cleaned, ghost precincts are detected and expunged, new COMELEC officials are assigned to oversee the elections, an international monitoring group is invited to monitor the elections, a real and honest to goodness gun ban is enforced and that all efforts are made to make sure that the people participate in the elections without fear.

To address the need for good governance in ARMM, the President can put up a National Office to Oversee ARMM Governance and its primary task is to make ARMM work better. This was done in the case of Northern Ireland where a Northern Ireland Office under the Office of the Prime Minister of UK was created to oversee and partner with the Northern Ireland Government to attain mutual interests. This National Office will be headed by a Secretary who will exercise the President’s power of supervision over the ARMM. Part of the functions of the National Office would be to implement transparency and good governance systems,  i.e. financial, procurement, local government, civil service, etc. The National Office will also implement systems and processes to monitor and evaluate the performance of ARMM governance.

More importantly and as a signal that the Government values autonomy is for President Aquino to say publicly that he will not be supporting any candidate in the ARMM. The ARMM elections should be the business of people in the ARMM.

Never stop imagining new ways of doing things.

Since what happens in ARMM strengthens or weakens our initiatives to bring peace in Mindanao, then the words of Sec. Teresita Deles intended for the peace talks are also apt for the search of solutions to the ARMM question:

“Let it not be said that the peace talks failed because of a failure of nerve, a failure of will, a failure of the imagination on our part.  I say a failure of nerve because, having marched for so long to the drumbeat of war, we are unnerved by the fear of losing our step.  I say failure of will because we would rather stick to our old formulas rather than risk losing ground and losing face. I say failure of the imagination because we cannot let go of our fossilized ways of thinking and doing things, blind to the fact that the way to life is to make all things new.”

What we need indeed is to continue to imagine new ways and means of solving the problem and not be stuck with “fossilized” ways of thinking. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Lawyer Camilo “Bong” Montesa was Assistant Secretary for Peacemaking at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. For five years, he was legal and strategy advisor of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF).