Considerations on the Bangsamoro Basic Law

Once the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law comes before Congress, we can expect its key provisions to be challenged on constitutional grounds.

Its critics will assail these provisions as tantamount to a de facto recognition of a dual-state situation. Constitutionality is also bound to be raised at the Supreme Court, which, not too long ago, struck down a previous initiative of more or less similar import.

We don’t know exactly how members of the Moro community will react to a failure to pass the proposed law, but we can be certain they will not take it sitting down. If the matter is not resolved before the end of President Aquino’s term, it will become a thorny talking point in the 2016 national elections. The challenge to the Bangsamoro law will be cast in the emotionally-laden vocabulary of “dismemberment” and “fragmentation,” mobilizing prejudices rooted in what one might call, with apologies to Freud, the narcissism of presumed wholeness.

While these skirmishes will happen on the political and legal fronts, the more decisive battle for a just and lasting peace must be waged in the hearts and minds of the Filipino people. And this demands from all of us not only the patience to understand a law that lies outside our everyday concerns, but also the readiness to examine our entrenched beliefs and biases about Muslims and Muslim Mindanao.

In what way has this region been a meaningful part of the Philippines? Its history has been marked by unremitting resistance to subjugation by external powers, including those representing the Filipino nation-state. Culturally, it has amazingly kept its coherence as a distinct entity in a predominantly Christianized society. Politically and economically, it has remained in the last 68 years of Philippine independence nothing more than a neglected and exploited periphery of a sovereign Filipino state. Its fierce sense of self-understanding revolves around the image of a community that is fighting to free itself from internal colonialism. It is safe to say that the average Filipino has always viewed this region with a mix of fascination and suspicion.

Because Muslim Mindanao has never felt the hand of an effective central political authority, it has spawned rival warlords who perform the basic functions of government. The republic itself has not been able to govern Mindanao except tenuously and indirectly—by integrating its Manila-sponsored strongmen into the circuits of the nation-state. The political history of the Ampatuan clan that ruled the province of Maguindanao for decades is a classic illustration of this arrangement. There are people like them in almost every town in Muslim Mindanao—armed tyrants who rule by intimidation and coercion. They signal their presence and their territorial claims by the multiple road checkpoints they maintain and the clan wars they now and then wage against one another.

The formation of an elected Bangsamoro political authority, whose rule, hopefully, will be free from the dysfunctions that have hobbled the existing regional government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is surely a step in the right direction.

If the Moro Islamic Liberation Front thought it was ready to create a separate Bangsamoro state, it would not bother to sit down for negotiations. It would simply announce its secession from the Republic of the Philippines and fight for international recognition. Indeed, this is a vision that many thoughtful Moros have not completely given up, seeing in it the only meaningful route they can take to ensure the survival and growth of the Moro nation. What deters them from pursuing this path is the awareness that wars of secession are open-ended events marked by protracted violence that can put in peril the very survival of their people.

There are many forms of regional autonomy, differing in the degrees to which the autonomous unit can effectively exercise self-direction and sustain itself over time. For political observers like former University of the Philippines president Jose Abueva, the Bangsamoro project could well be a template for a more comprehensive federal system of government in the future.

To me, real autonomy is an evolutionary achievement of society. No law can completely underwrite an autonomy whose conditions of possibility have not been previously established in the political arena. In the long term, even political authority will be empty without economic growth. And stable economic activity is not possible without functioning social institutions like schools and civil society organizations. None of these aspirations can be realized anymore within narrow ethnolinguistic or sectarian lines. That is why the case of the Bangsamoro may strike some, at first glance, as a retreat to premodern segmentary societies. But, when one considers that what is being consolidated under a single political authority here is a region that hitherto has been ruled by tribal fiefdoms, warlords, and local kingpins, it is difficult not to see it as a modest step toward political modernity.

The viability of an autonomous system lies ultimately in its ability to define its own environment. Autonomy is not isolation. It means, rather, being able to determine one’s own points of connection to the world. This is something that is not acquired overnight, but is developed only in the course of a cognitive openness to the possibilities that a complex world has to offer.