The Bangsamoro Dream (3): 21 years of ARMM, 32 years of autonomy experimentation

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/09 September) – The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is 21 years old but the“autonomous region” set-up or  “experiment” as many refer to it, including Malacanang, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been existing for the last 32 years, spanning six administrations..

Before the ARMM’s inauguration in 1990, there were two regional autonomous regions (RAGs)  – in Region 9 based in Zamboanga City and in Region 12 based in Cotabato City – purportedly to  implement the Tripoli Agreement of 1976  government signed with the MNLF.

Exercising his martial law powers (he declared martial law in 1972), then President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1628 on March 25, 1977 creating the RAGs and setting the conduct of the plebiscite on April 17 that year in the 13 provinces and nine cities of Mindanao and Palawan that the Tripoli Agreement identified as “areas of the autonomy.”

Marcos’ 1628 also created a provisional government covering the 13 provinces, and tasked it to prepare for the conduct of the referendum on the RAGs  and election of  their legislative assembly and to administer the provinces. The MNLF had negotiated for a provisional government in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, but not this version of Marcos who named his crony, the warlord Ali Dimaporo, as head. The two RAGs were inaugurated in 1979.

The MNLF also protested the Marcos administration’s unilateral decision to declare two regional autonomous governments instead of one. Under the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the “areas of the autonomy,” were to comprise the following:  Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Davao Del Sur, South Cotabato and Palawan and “all the cities and villages” therein.

At that time in 1979, there were nine cities situated within the autonomy areas: Zamboanga, Dipolog, Dapitan, Pagadian, Cotabato, Iligan, Marawi, General Santos in Mindanao and Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

In the 1977 plebiscite, the cities of General Santos and Puerto Princesa and the provinces of Palawan, South Cotabato and Davao del Sur rejected inclusion in the RAGs.

Batas Pambansa Blg. 20 was enacted by the Interim Batasang Pambansa, then known as Marcos’ rubber-stamp legislature, on March 23, 1979, providing for the organization of the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Council of  the RAGs and the manner of election.  Elections were held on May 7, 1979 but  Presidential Decree 1618, issued by Marcos only on July 25, 1979, defined the functions, powers and responsibilities of the Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (Executive Council) and the Batasang Pampook (Legislative Assembly) as the executive and legislative arms, respectively, of each of the RAGs.

That it was a unilateral move the national government was evident not only in the choice of two RAGs instead of one as agreed upon with MNLF, but also by the choice of its names: Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (LTP) and Batasang Pampook,  strange words for non-Pilipino speaking regions in the proposed autonomy areas, even more strange for the Moro-speaking populace.

Twelve years after the plebiscite in 1977, yet another plebiscite over the same “areas of the autonomy” would be held in 1989, this time under RA 6734. Only four provinces – Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao and none of the nine cities voted for inclusion in the ARMM. Another 12 years later, in the 2001 plebiscite under RA 9054,  which was supposed to have incorporated the provisions of the “Final Peace Agreement” with the MNLF and allow for the expansion of the ARMM but which the MNLF said rendered the autonomous region “less autonomous than it was under RA 6734,”  only Basilan (except Isabela City)  and the Islamic City of Marawi opted to join the “expanded” ARMM. Lamitan town in Basilan would become the second city when the town’s status was elevated into a city.

When the first Aquino administration assumed the post in 1986, it attempted to merge the two RAGs with Zacaria Candao, then OIC Governor for Maguindanao, designated as chair. (Candao would become the first ARMM governor in 1990).

“Guided by the single autonomous government envisioned in the Tripoli Agreement, we worked for the merger of LTP 12 and LTP 9. An executive order was issued by Cory, merging 9 and 12 and designating me as the chairman for both,” Candao told MindaNews in a 2006 interview.

He said he was about to take over LTP 12 in Cotabato City  after weeks of barricade by the LTP 12 chair, Ronnie Malaguiok, an MNLF commander who had surrendered earlier “but I could not take over region 9 because Sali Wali (another MNLF commander who had also surrendered earlier) challenged me to (laughs) a shootout. I said no, I shouldn’t do that. And so my attention was called by Nene Pimentel (Aquilino Pimentel, then the Local Governments Secretary).  Sabi ni Nene, ‘Zac, kaya ba natin ito?’ Sabi ko at the moment siguro mahirap, mahirap. Sabi niya so we forego with the merger in the meantime. Oo. … (Sali Wali) really challenged everybody, including Cory.”

The merger didn’t succeed, Candao said, but “at least the direction to establish a singular autonomous region for 9 and 12 was there from that time and which was also, I think, I’ll say one of the guiding principles in creating the ARMM.”

Before RA 6734, the Organic Act for the ARMM, was passed in 1989, the national government, already mandated by the 1987 Constitution to set up autonomous regions to address the  Bangsamoro and Cordillera struggles, created a Regional Consultative Commission (RCC) composed of representatives from the “areas of the autonomy” to draft the Organic Act. The 52-member RCC was composed of Moro, Lumad (indigenous peoples) and settlers from Luzon and the Visayas who had made Mindanao their home (often referred to as “Christians”).

In their introduction to the book, “Autonomy for Muslim Mindanao: The RCC Untold Story,” Maranao commissioners Taha Basman, Mama Lalanto and Nagasura Madale wrote about the difficulties the faced in the RCC. “There was even a point in time when mentioning the MNLF or the Tripoli Agreement was virtually taboo. The Muslims had to toe the line everytime they wanted to squeeze in their demands during the whole exercise. Instead of becoming the primary beneficiaries of the Autonomy being worked out, the Muslims became the convenient scapegoat to, ironically, legitimize the institutionalization of the political, economic, and administrative structures that were employed to oppress them in the past.”

The authors said it became obvious that the “hitherto nagging Muslim Problem was sidelined, and what was designed to be traversed by the RCC proceedings was how the now-numerically superior migrants could conveniently accommodate a few of the demands of the indigenous constituents of Muslim Mindanao.”

Candao in the same 2006 interview, recalls that the draft the RCC produced was better than the RA 6734 that Congress passed.

“Hindi nasunod. Nung dumating kina (Speaker Ramon Mitra) lahat-lahat hindi nasunod.  (It wasn’t followed. When it reached (Congress under Speaker Mitra),  everything was not followed). In fairness to the Regional Commission, what they envisioned there was a strong autonomy.  But Congress was looking at a different thing. (They were saying) “hindi pwedeng at the start bigyan na ng pera yan. Hindi pa natin malalaman kung saan yun pupunta” (it cannot be that they would be given money at the start. We still do not know where that will go,” Candao said in the 2006 interview. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

[Tomorrow: What’s wrong with the ARMM structure?]

[Yesterday: The Bangsamoro Dream (2): “Guberno a sarwang” (alien government)]