Not the solution

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To hear him talk, some people can be forgiven if they think that President Noynoy Aquino has single-handedly found the permanent solution to centuries of Muslim rebellion in Mindanao.

But to those who have actually given some thought to the problem, Aquino’s stab at the role of peacemaker is clearly unoriginal, probably fatally flawed and most likely doomed from the very beginning.

Today, in the presence of the Malaysian prime minister, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will sign the comprehensive agreement creating Bangsamoro, the latest incarnation of the decades-old proposal to put up an autonomous Muslim state-within-a-state in Mindanao. Of course, the granting of the expanded powers of self-rule to Muslims in the south will still require the passage of an enabling law from Congress and the hurdling of legal and constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court.

Congress is easy; Senate President Franklin Drilon has already promised the speedy approval of an enabling Bangsamoro law, as if he owned the place - which to a certain, palace-larded extent, he does. The Supreme Court is not so easy to read, since only a few years ago, the tribunal shot down the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (or MoA-AD) that the Arroyo administration pushed to replace the Cory-era Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

The new Bangsamoro agreement, analysts say, is a virtual clone of MoA-AD, which the high court declared unconstitutional. And it is certain that the same people and groups that opposed the Arroyo-MILF agreement, knowing that the new agreement pact is plagued with the same legal infirmities, will lodge similar complaints in the coming days.

However, the government of President Noynoy Aquino does not only have its own powerful resources to ensure the approval of Bangsamoro, in Congress, the Supreme Court or elsewhere. Apart from the backing of Malaysia, which has long acted as an “honest broker” in the peace negotiations between Manila and MILF, Aquino also has the unqualified support of Washington - which is pushing Bangsamoro autonomy for reasons of its own, not necessarily related to the internal peace and order situation in strife-torn Mindanao.

The US’ renewed interest in an autonomous Mindanao, according to most foreign affairs observers, has to do with the Asian “pivot” policy. The renewed American presence in the region would require having in place a more pliable Bangsamoro government that does not have the noisy, contentious institutions of Manila which are only too willing to protest American basing and other expansionist plans.

As for Malaysia, a more independent Bangsamoro that owes its establishment to Kuala Lumpur would certainly help in quieting down that pesky claim of the Sultanate of Sulu to the territory of Sabah. And Aquino, as Kit Tatad and others have observed, seems only too willing to let go of the Sabah claim, instead of fighting for the sultanate’s long-held right to the territory.

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Personally, I support real and expanded autonomy for the Moros, if only because it will lead to the rise of federalism in the Philippines. If Bangsamoro becomes the template for more regional autonomy and independence from the central government in Imperial Manila, then I’m all for it.

I’ve long believed that, for development and progress to reach the provinces, each region should become more independent - financially, especially - from the national government. The more funds remain in the regions, the better off they would be, I’m certain.

But I fear that Bangsamoro, because it is hobbled by the same problems of MoA-AD that created the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, ARMM and the Marcos-era Autonomous Region in the Southern Philippines, isn’t going to be the final solution to the centuries-old problem that Aquino believes it is. In particular, I am concerned that because the Manila government has once again ignored the other stakeholders in Mindanao - the indigenous lumads and the transplanted Christians, both of whom make up sizable portions of the island’s population - in its haste to hammer out an agreement with MILF, this latest experiment is bound to fail.

Even more dangerous than the shaky legal foundations of Aquino’s Bangsamoro project, is the potential for renewed and intensified conflict between the lumads (who were in Mindanao before the Moros), the Christians (who moved in in droves as part of previous governments’ campaigns to dilute the Moro population) and the Muslims. And when the Muslims, as the agreement provides, start having their own police forces - contrary to the constitutional prescription of one national police force, civilian in character - it’s almost a recipe for mayhem.

Aquino’s Bangsamoro sounds more like minimum compliance to the demands of outside forces to me, more than true, expanded autonomy. If he wins the Nobel Peace Prize for it (as the most enthusiastic of his boosters say he will), it still doesn’t make it the solution to conflict in Mindanao that he claims it will be - not by a long shot.

 

It will take more than a copycat agreement that has already been declared unconstitutional to bring lasting peace and development in Mindanao. And this administration - which cannot even improve the lives of Filipinos in its own impoverished Manila backyard - doesn’t seem like the one that will make peace and prosperity come about in the strife-torn frontiers of our land.