The Bangsamoro future

As one who has avidly followed the twists and turns of past efforts at forging peace with the Bangsamoro, I can only marvel at the diligence, care, and patience that the present negotiators from the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have shown in crafting a document that can be accepted by their respective principals. I had hesitated to celebrate the well-publicized signing of the so-called framework agreement more than a year ago, believing it was no more than a commitment to keep talking for as long as it takes until a comprehensive draft agreement is produced. With the recent completion of the annex on power sharing, I think we can now say that the improbable has become truly possible.

The next business of the day is the final annex on normalization, which is expected to be less contentious. But, from there, the next phase of the hard work begins—the drafting of the basic law that will create the new Bangsamoro government. This power is lodged in the Philippine Congress and the President. They are expected to scrutinize the draft agreement and its annexes, and to draw from these documents the basis for the organic law establishing the Bangsamoro political structure within the framework of the country’s political system. This is not going to be a walk in the park.

Procedural as well as substantive issues are bound to be raised. Some will ask if the passage of a new organic law for the Bangsamoro will automatically mean the dissolution of the existing autonomous region for Muslim Mindanao. And if so, will this not require amending the 1987 Constitution? While the wealth and power-sharing annexes hew closely to what one might expect to find in a federal parliamentary system, they may be jarring to those accustomed to the linear neatness of the unitary presidential setup.

Thus far, public reception of the peace talks with the MILF has been encouraging. No doubt, tremendous trust has been built in the course of the painstaking work that went into the formulation of the annexes. The substantive commentary on the annexes, however, has been sparse. We can expect more strident analysis when the question reaches Congress. At that point, the whole project can only succeed with the unequivocal support of the President and the active participation of an informed public that believes in seeing the peace effort through to its conclusion.

For the old suspicions linger. Outside Mindanao, the prevalent view is still that any talk of Mindanao autonomy is a risky prelude to the dismemberment of the republic. It is worth recalling that the delegates to the 1898 Malolos Congress, who were among the best educated and the most enlightened Filipinos of their generation, had no sympathy for Muslim Mindanao’s right to self-determination. Faced with the challenge of creating a new republic from the embers of the Spanish empire, they wrongly presumed that they could speak for every inhabitant of these islands.

Indeed, it was the military man, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who, conscious of the need to secure the success of the revolution, took the trouble to write to the Sultan of Sulu on the eve of the promulgation of the Malolos Constitution. In his letter of Jan. 19, 1899, Aguinaldo, signing as president of the new Philippine Republic, told the sultan that “the Filipinos, after having thrown off the yoke of foreign domination, cannot forget their brothers of Jolo to whom they are bound by the ties of race, interests, security and defense in this region of the Far East.” Without presuming anything, the young leader extended to the sultan and his followers “the highest assurance of friendship, consideration, and esteem.”

Aguinaldo’s federalist vision clashed with the unitary paradigm that informed the drafting of the Malolos Constitution. The sultan did not bother to reply to Aguinaldo’s letter; he was busy negotiating the status of his own people with the new American conquerors. After agreeing to the Treaty of Paris on Dec. 10, 1898, the Spaniards turned around and restored Jolo to its rightful owner, the Sultan of Sulu. This caught the Americans by surprise, prompting them to enter into a separate agreement with the Muslim royalty so as not to lose Moroland. This was the Bates Treaty of 1899.

As a result of these events, writes O.D. Corpuz in “Roots of the Filipino nation,” the place of the Muslim Filipinos in the new Filipino nation was never clarified. “That they (the islands of Muslim Mindanao) were later on made part of the Philippines under the colonial occupation of the American regime means a whole world of difference from if they had become part of the Republic under the fraternal approach of Aguinaldo’s concept of ‘national solidarity upon the basis of a real federation and of absolute respect for their beliefs and traditions.’”

The Americans never succeeded in taking full control of Muslim Mindanao. First they tried a policy of noninterference. When this did not work, they formed a separate Moro province in 1903, with the intention of directly administering all of Mindanao with the exception of Misamis and Surigao. The result was a long and bloody campaign that was fought in the Muslim heartland of Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao. The so-called Moro wars lasted until 1912. The Americans claimed decisive military victory in all the big battles. But they failed to subdue the Moros, who, Corpuz said, fought “to keep their way of life. If they had been left alone, they would have remained in grudging, perhaps sullen and suspicious, peace. They fought because they were attacked, and they were prepared to die.”

We cannot go on reenacting the mistakes of the past.