History repeating itself

In the last decades of Spanish colonial rule over the Philippines, Filipinos found themselves split into basically three groups. The first accepted Spanish rule but called on Spain to reciprocate their loyalty with better treatment. The second took Spanish rule as a given, but campaigned for a greater voice in the governance of the islands. The third group rejected foreign rule and pressed for full independence.

The same divisions reappeared under American colonial rule. The three groups were called, respectively, “annexationists,” “autonomists,” and “independentists.” The first desired full integration of the islands into the United States. The second called for self-rule under American patronage. And the third worked for full independence from foreign rule.

These categories occur wherever the inhabitants of a place think of themselves as constituting an entity distinct from those who wield power over them. The perceived difference typically draws from various sources of identity: race, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, history—or a mixture of any of these. Where we were as a people not too long ago, there the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front find themselves today. They and those who came before them have long regarded our government as a foreign imposition on the Bangsamoro community. They draw their emancipatory aspirations from the same sentiments that animated the American Revolution against the British, and, indeed, the Filipino wars of liberation against Spain and the United States.

The affiliations described are, of course, never permanent. Some start out as “reformists” and graduate to being “revolutionaries.” Others begin as revolutionaries and turn into reformists. After a long and difficult struggle, they are persuaded to lay down their arms in exchange for a political settlement that is less than their original goal but promises to be better than the status quo. Indeed, some go back to being revolutionaries after their hopes are dashed by recurrent duplicity and betrayal.

I imagine that the same divisions exist today in Southern Mindanao. The “annexationists” demand greater attention by the Manila government for neglected Mindanao, but they think this can be achieved by a respectful integration of its institutions into a more inclusive Filipino nation. Mindanao’s traditional elites belong to this mold.

Then there are the “autonomists.” Most of them are original advocates of secession who, having grown weary of war, agree to negotiate a political settlement that permits them meaningful self-rule within the framework of the Philippine Republic. The MILF is the current champion of this path.

At the polar end of this political spectrum are the motley rebel groups who are still calling for secession. We can count among them the so-called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the many idealistic but unaffiliated Moros whose disenchantment with previous peace agreements has made them totally distrustful of the Manila government.

If it successfully hurdles the legislative process with its key provisions intact, the Basic Law of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would be the most comprehensive measure ever to be crafted by any Filipino administration to address the Moro problem. It would be, by any measure, a bold and gigantic step toward curing the historical injustice that was produced by the unilateral annexation of Muslim Mindanao by an independent Filipino nation.

A Bangsamoro law that is basically a rehash of the congressional act that created the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao would only maintain the same systemic conditions that led to the failure of the ARMM experiment. I dare say that all the Mindanao peace accords that had been signed under previous administrations essentially entailed buying off the loyalty of Moro leaders in order to keep the region exploitable for the benefit of interests other than those of the peoples of Mindanao. The inevitable failure of such a law would only recruit more people into the secessionist rebellion.

It is remarkable that the legislators who demand guarantees that the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would not be a prelude to an independent state are the same ones who seek to strip the autonomous region’s government of the very powers and resources it needs to make genuine autonomy viable. In so doing, they are only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To me, the main message of the bill now pending in Congress should be: that we, the Filipino people, recognizing the historic injustices that past generations inflicted on the people of this region, now seek to bind these wounds once and for all. That we do so of our own accord—not out of fear, but in solidarity with those who, like us, have felt the oppressive hand of colonialism.

Once upon a time, Filipinos took comfort in the words of the American writer Mark Twain, who himself might have been branded a traitor by his own people. He used to be, he said, “a red-hot imperialist,” who could not wait to see the American eagle “spread its wings over the Philippines… put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific….” Explaining how he turned into an ardent anti-imperialist, he said: “But I have thought some more, since then… I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way.”

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