Robin Padilla and the Mindanao question

Before me is a copy of the 1999 masteral law thesis of Soliman M. Santos Jr. for the University of Melbourne in Australia.  It is titled “Constitutional Accommodation of a Moro Islamic System in the Philippines.”  Its specific focus is the challenge of secession from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Here is the man who should be negotiating a just settlement of the Mindanao crisis, beyond the release of the hostages taken by the Abu Sayyaf and those kidnapped in retaliation by the vigilante leader Abdul Midjal.  Unfortunately, he is only a legal scholar, not an action star like Robin Padilla.  In a country enthralled by movie actors, he may, if he is lucky, be appointed an adviser to Robin Padilla.

Having watched another actor’s performance as president in the past two years, the public will probably not think much of Robin’s capabilities as mediator in a conflict as complex as Mindanao’s.   But no matter: Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile is right in saying that if Robin’s participation in the negotiations will induce the rebels to release the hostages rather than to massacre them, then, by all means, bring him in.  That option is preferable anytime to the all-out-war ordered by President Estrada.

But Robin as peace negotiator would do better than Erap as president if he had Sol Santos to brief him.  Santos has done a good job of examining both the Philippine Constitution and Islamic law and tradition in order to show the common values and aspirations in which to frame a legitimate solution.  He has surveyed the abundant new thinking in international law pertaining to minority and indigenous people’s rights, self-determination and autonomy.

As a lawyer, he is aware of the constitutional obstacles that have needlessly prevented the exploration of more creative approaches to the Mindanao problem.  His constitutional pragmatism reminds me of John Dewey’s insight: “The belief in political fixity, of the sanctity of some form of state consecrated by the efforts of our fathers and hallowed by tradition, is one of the stumbling-blocks in the way of orderly and directed change; it is an invitation to revolt and revolution.”

Santos advocates a re-conceptualization of Philippine sovereignty in order to accommodate “a Moro Islamic system in predominantly Muslim areas which want it.”  This internal self-determination falls short of actual secession, but it permits maximum autonomy.  It is consistent, he says, with a principle in international law which rejects the right of secession when “the grievances underlying demands for secession can be removed through the exercise of internal selfdetermination.”

The shape of Moro autonomy that Santos has in mind is broader and deeper than the one contemplated by the 1987 Constitution.  He proposes the formation of a region acceptable to the Bangsamoro people, which “shall exercise maximum autonomy with independent legislative, executive and judicial powers under an Islamic system.” He makes room for the separate right of the indigenous tribal peoples of Mindanao “to opt for a high degree of autonomy in their ancestral lands where indigenous tribal systems shall prevail.”  In the true spirit of self-determination, the Bangsamoro and tribal peoples will be allowed the freedom to make their “constitutional choices” of a higher or a lower autonomy within the range “between integration and secession.”   Santos draws most of his insights from the Chinese “one country, two systems” concept embodied in the Hong Kong model.

The philosophical warrant and legal-technical requirements of a Bangsamoro Islamic Region are well covered in the Santos thesis.  I think those whose fidelity to constitutional principles gets in the way of a pragmatic solution to the Mindanao conflict will find much in this piece of scholarship to allay their anxieties.   But being a thesis in law, Sol Santos’s study does not address in equal detail the political realities in the Southern Philippines, of which the Basilan hostage impasse is only a manifestation.

The most important of these is the existence of a plurality of Islamic groups all claiming to represent the authentic interests of the Moro nation.  In September 1996, the government signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the latter’s capacity as the sole negotiating party of the whole Moro nation and not just of the Muslims in Sulu.  That agreement, brokered by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), did not end the problem. Today, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has emerged as the largest and best-armed Muslim force in Mindanao, and it does not consider itself bound by the GRP-MNLF agreement.  Another group is the smaller but more adventurous Abu Sayyaf, which has figured in a number of kidnappings in the past and which is at the center of the current hostage crisis in Basilan.  We are seeing here the seeds of not one but three Islamic systems based in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, and Basilan.

The absence of a sustained effort on the part of the Moro community to bring these three rival groups together in dialogue is not encouraging. It is difficult to imagine an experiment in Islamic selfdetermination succeeding against a background of Moro disunity. While such disunity may have been instigated by Manila’s imperial governments in the past, no amount of constitutional accommodation by the center can solve this now for Muslim Mindanao.  Selfdetermination requires that the Bangsamoro people must imagine themselves as one nation.


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