The SPCPD gamble

The creation of the SPCPD or the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development may be described as the last attempt of the state to formally integrate Moroland into the Filipino nation.

If it succeeds, those Moro checkpoints — which designate the boundaries of contested territory and which stand as the last emblems of Moro sovereignty  — will at last be lifted.   Then we can say that what the Spaniards and the Americans failed to attain by war, Filipinos, with the help of friendly Islamic nations, were able to accomplish  by peaceful means.

If it fails, because its powers are either not recognized or they are abused, then we will be back – not to square one – but to a situation probably far more volatile than before.  Not only will the checkpoints proliferate, but the area will once more become the unruled margins of these islands.   Heavily armed “lost commands” will sprout everywhere, and whoever dares to do business in those territories may have to do so with the help of private armies or must pay protection money.  This is the gamble that the settlement in Mindanao represents.

If this experiment does not yield meaningful results, I do not believe that Nur Misuari and the MNLF will have the moral authority to lead their people again.  The bigger and better armed MILF, which is now waiting in the wings, may come forward and take the leadership.  Or maybe young Muslims will then find every reason to champion the cause of the more radical rebels who continue to call for the secession of the Moro nation.

The creation of the SPCPD is ultimately an alternative to a military solution in Mindanao.  Maybe it is not the only alternative.  But for now, it is the only one that has boldly taken shape.  Wisely or foolishly, President Ramos and Misuari and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have agreed on it as the most feasible peaceful way under the circumstances.

The situation that SPCPD confronts is certainly not an easy one.  Its powers are nothing but delegated powers of the President.  When it comes to proposing and monitoring, its functions are clear.  But when it comes to administering and controlling, its powers are at best ambiguous.   It has no direct mandate from the dominant Christian population on which to rest.

If the work of the SPCPD were nothing more than simply to entice investments from the oil-rich Islamic nations to come to Mindanao, Misuari’s function would probably be no different from that of the presidential assistant for Mindanao.  If he were just a salesman for Mindanao, knocking at the door of Islamic governments and corporations, he would probably be feted at the home of every rich family in these islands. Unfortunately, that is not the way it looks to the large property owners of the region.

The peace agreement that created the SPCPD is meant to represent the “full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement”.    That 1976 agreement, entered into by the Marcos government which was then under pressure to end the war, recognized the validity of a Moro homeland.  Is it not theoretically possible that the SPCPD might just take it upon itself to inquire into the legality of large landholdings now in the possession of the wealthy property owners of Mindanao?  This possibility, I believe, is what truly fuels the fear of the big landowners in Mindanao today.

For many years throughout the American colonial period and after independence, the Manila-based government had encouraged the settling of Mindanao by Christians.  The property rights of the Moro people and the indigenous communities over their lands were cavalierly ignored as these were declared part of the public domain of the Filipino state.  Some of these lands were awarded by the government as homesteads to small settlers.  But the bulk of them were simply grabbed by big time loggers, ranchers, and plantation operators, and later legitimized under Philippine laws.

Does the SPCPD have the power to re-open the issue of these land acquisitions?  Will Misuari follow the example of the native Hawaiians who successfully argued the validity of their ancestral claims to much of the valuable real estate in today’s Honolulu?

I would be very surprised if Misuari had not thought of the touchy question of land ownership and natural resources concessions in Mindanao.  For this lies at the base of the Moros’ historic complaint that they have become destitute squatters in their own homeland.  It would seem like a betrayal of the quest for autonomy if this issue were not placed on the agenda of SPCPD concerns.

In signing the peace agreement, President Ramos was probably hoping that the mere momentum of economic development made possible by the restoration of peace would so sweep all of Mindanao that there would hardly be any time to recall past iniquities.  I am afraid however that the time-frame is much too optimistic; three years are not enough to transform Mindanao from battlefield to market.

Unless something truly phenomenal unfolds in Mindanao in the next two years, one wonders what gives Governor Misuari enough reason to believe that he will win the plebiscite for an expanded area of autonomy.    But if he was not foolish enough to believe in the first place, would he have  signed the agreement?  He must know something we don’t.  Or he is simply unfazed by what everyone knows – this free man of action.


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