Make autonomy a reality, not rhetoric

At the core of the conflict is the issue of severe marginalisation and deprivation which Moro Muslims feel and see as part of the state policy against them

Last week in the Philippines the debate around the on-and-off negotiations between the government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), resumed after fighting broke out in certain regions of southern Philippines. In this 40-year-old conflict — one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world — the layers of factionalism that have emerged within the rebel entities in the south make attempts at finding a linear solution very difficult. At the core of the conflict is the issue of severe marginalisation and deprivation which Moro Muslims feel and see as part of the state policy against them. Since the Philippines is staunchly Catholic, the divide between the Centre and this region is unmistakable.

The region of south Philippines, which comprises the territories of Mindanao, Palawan and parts of the Sulu archipelago, has been recognised as a homeland for the Bangsamoro Muslim people. This region, not originally a part of the Republic of the Philippines, was always seen as a separate homeland ruled by the Moro sultanate that was incorporated into the republic.
Historically the south Philippines had mostly remained an independent sultanate. In fact, Islam began to spread in this area through traders as early as the 14th century. When the Spanish colonised the Philippines, the most resistance to their rule came from the south. It was incorporated into the Philippines in the late 19th century, first under the Spanish and later the United States.
In the late Sixties and Seventies when the hostilities between the government and the insurgents increased, there was an attempt to create an autonomous region for the south. By a plebiscite in 1989, only four of the provinces joined this, forming the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), while the rest remained outside.
While the negotiations between the Philippines government and the MILF have been stalled since 2008, there was fresh hope that the meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and the MILF leadership last month in Tokyo could lay the foundations for a settlement of the protracted conflict. But the cancellation of the elections in Autonomous Regions of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has further complicated the issue.
In 2008, the negotiations to formulate the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) were stalled when the Supreme Court of the Philippines declared it unconstitutional. This agreement could have ensured a degree of autonomy to the southern islands, making for greater flexibility between the region and the Centre. While the MOA-AD was put down by the Supreme Court, even within the MILF it met with resistance from hardliners, as well as from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), a splinter group of the MILF launched by renegade Moro rebel Ameril Umbra Kato. The BIFM wants an independent state for the Moro Muslims. Factions like the BIFM have added new dimensions to the conflict, make any solution difficult to achieve.
The August 2011 negotiations between the officials of Benigno Aquino III and MILF rebel leaders for the first time looked at the possibility of a formula that may actually mitigate the conflict and help in the return of normalcy in the region. The settlement under discussion, which is being called the “Comprehensive Compact”, looks at the possibility of giving the south region greater autonomy within the republic, including political representation in running the local administration.
One of the provisions discussed is the possibility of giving the region the benefits of a sub-state, where the south may receive autonomy within the Philippines’ Constitution. This would mean that issues relating to defence, foreign relations and state security would fall within the purview of the Central government, while other issues will be within the regional purview. This is similar to the federal option, which allows flexible arrangement for power sharing between the Centre and the state.
Under the Comprehensive Compact, the degree of autonomy for the south will run counter to the provisions of the 1987 Constitution which governs the Philippines. For this formulation to work effectively, changes need to be made in the Constitution, which remains as it was in 1987. Amendments to the Constitution, popularly called cha-cha (Charter Change), remain a very delicate political debate in the Philippines.
Another development in this regard is that the southern region, which also comprises the ARMM, was to have elections in August 2011. The postponement of the elections till the 2013 mid-term national elections is being seen as a negative step by several law makers. This is because it unnecessarily gives the President the right to appoint Officers in Charge (OICs) in the ARMM, which is again being linked to the peace process with the MILF. There is speculation that factionalism within the MILF will lead to their members being appointed OICs in the region in a bid to dilute their demands and bring them closer to the government’s point of view, thereby
pushing the settlement closer to the government’s standpoint.
Interestingly, the current position on taking forward the Comprehensive Compact is close to the idea of the MOA-AD — a separate identity for the region and greater autonomy. But the political will for the same will be tested as the government of Benigno Aquino III has to make the necessary changes to the Constitution that will ensure that autonomy for the region becomes a reality rather than mere rhetoric that is used time and again.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at JNU, New Delhi

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