Commentary ‘Substate’ or reformed ARMM: new hope for the Moro

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The Aquino-Murad meeting in Tokyo, followed by the exploratory talks in Kuala Lumpur, has intensified the rhetoric on the sub-state issue. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said it will not be distracted from its concern for the substantive issues nor yield to legal gambits, and should it fail to seek a negotiated political settlement, it will revert to its original stance to secede.

The MILF has incorporated the “substance” of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) into its proposed comprehensive compact, but minus the portions found in conflict with the Constitution. The Supreme Court, the MILF contends, did not declare the MOA-AD unconstitutional in its entirety.

In the MILF’s vision of substate, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) remains the core territory but would comprise other Moro ancestral domains. It would be governed by a chief minister elected by an assembly as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would have “asymmetrical relations” with the national government similar to Hong Kong’s relations with China. The substate would exercise all governmental powers and functions, except those of national defense, foreign affairs, postal services and coinage, which would remain vested in the national government.

The MILF has recommended a provision to this effect which would only be “appended, attached” to the Constitution.

We are faced with a compromise formula: Moro independence as outside the parameters of the negotiations while accommodating the substate proposal into the framework of the Philippine Constitution. Would the MILF’s recommendations fit within the framework of the Philippine Constitution?

Most constitutional luminaries and political class elites have been trapped in the unitary state system that makes least possible a compromise in the current peace talks. As a prelude, the proposed substate requires a process, an amendment to and ratification of the Constitution to liquidate the Organic Act and abolish the ARMM. This should erase fears that the proposed substate could develop into a totally separate Moro polity, thus raising a problematic situation.

How else can the envisioned substate framework be laid on the negotiating table? By any stretch of the imagination, the ARMM is itself a substate and any expansion of its territorial integrity would require a plebiscite as a constitutional command. A full substate, if it has to come, would be a test of maturity in constitutional reforms.

The “Moro Question” must be framed on a workable arrangement structured on the principle of the right to self-determination, as well as on social historical justice in order to achieve a successful political settlement. It would be needless to attempt here a historical analysis of the status of the Muslims in the Philippines, but suffice it to say that the Moro people’s identity as a distinct nation antedated by centuries the Filipino nation which developed only after the 1896 Philippine revolution. Since the colonial periods, the Moro people have suffered national, class and religious oppression. A critique of neoliberal ideology that apologizes for the continued wars in the Moro homeland deserves a place in contemporary debates on the

Moro quest for self-determination.

The right to self-determination (RSD) has evolved as a reaction against hundreds of years of European colonialism and found its early expression in secessionist ideals in modern history. In Philippine experience, the protection of customs, beliefs and interests of the Moro population has engaged the framers of our 1987 Constitution to be alive to the mosaic pattern of Philippine cultural pluralism, and a fiat was established for the creation of what is now the (ARMM).

But why has the ARMM failed? The ARMM that emerged suffered from many constraints. The territory is not contiguous. Weak and susceptible, its apparatuses are held hostage by Moro clans’ dominance and constant armed contest for economic and political power. With the inadequate powers vested in it, the ARMM failed to evolve its own institutional capacity, which made it ever dependent on heavy subsidies from the national government for its operation. And much of these subsidies were miserably lost to massive corruption. The ARMM therefore failed to evolve into a full sub-state as it hardly accomplished even the most basic expectations of autonomous governance.

The challenge to the Aquino presidency is to show a seriousness of purpose. Already, President Aquino has demonstrated his readiness to reform the ARMM. He has ordered a transition which will set in motion the process of reforms initiated with the new law (Republic Act 10153) as relevant to the setting up of a political infrastructure in order to make the “autonomous” region truly autonomous than ever before.

Whether it is a “substate” or a reformed ARMM, a new hope for the Moro springs eternal once more.

Dr. Darwin T. Rasul III is author of the book “Peace Initiatives,” co-convenor of Reform ARMM Now (RAN) coalition and chair of the Minority Rights Forum Philippines.

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