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Understanding the Proposed Bangsamoro Sub-state

Just when we all thought that the President of the Republic has become a tad predictable, off he flew to Narita last week for a hush-hush meeting with representatives of the MILF. I have not made up my mind yet about that flying visit to Japan. Did he not say, after all, that we are his boss; and if any of us leaves the workplace without informing our superiors, do we not all get a not-too-friendly note from HR?

While government spokespersons have been dutifully tight-lipped about what went on during the meeting – in violation, we can all argue, of this very same government’s self-declared policy of transparency – representatives of the MILF have not been shy at all about talking to the media.

They no longer seek to secede from the Philippines, they say. In layman’s terms, that means they no longer wish to establish a sovereign or independent state distinct from the rest of the country.

Instead, they say, what they wish to establish is a Bangsamoro sub-state that has autonomy in the management of its affairs but will not be independent of the Republic of the Philippines. In the first six-year transition period, the Bangsamoro will only involve six provinces. Over time, though, it will encompass what is now known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or the ARMM.

But what, exactly, is the Bangsamoro? The word bangsa is Malay and means “people” or “nation.” The world moro, meanwhile, is Spanish for Moor. This was how Muslims were referred to in Europe during medieval times. Inferring from these two words, therefore, we can arrive at the conclusion that the term Bangsamoro may mean either the Muslim people or the Muslim nation.

If an agreement is ever arrived at for the setting up of such a sub-state, then the Bangsamoro will have autonomy over its territory to perform all functions of governance except in matters pertaining to the national currency and coinage, national defence, postal services and the conduct of foreign affairs. This means that it will be able to set up its own administrative, legislative and judiciary branches, the accountability to national government of which – I suppose – will have to be determined within the course of negotiations.

A Bangsamoro sub-state will be beneficial to the territories covered in many ways. For one, it will be able to form its own government to administer these territories. Interviews with MILF representatives on television seem to indicate that the preferred form of government is parliamentary, as opposed to the presidential type that the Philippine government currently has.

This means that citizens of the territories covered will be able to directly elect their representatives to an assembly or parliament; but once these representatives – or ministers – are elected, it is up to them to select from among themselves who will become the Prime Minister. This is tricky; but I will get back to the matter in a short while.

A second benefit of a sub-state to the territories covered will also be that the funds collected in the form of taxes will stay in the sub-state and administered in the way that its own state government deems proper. In the present set-up, taxes are remitted to central government before these are subsequently redistributed back but only as seen appropriate by central government.

There are many more possible benefits of having such a sub-state, but I will just cite one more: the ability to legislate as appropriate for the peoples of the territories covered without being obligated to take into consideration the concerns of peoples elsewhere in the republic. This is of particular significance to the MILF since it will allow legislation according to Sharia or Muslim law and traditions.

It is significant that the MILF has toned down its demands from secession to the setting up of a sub-state. That said, if at all we are to see such a Bangsamoro sub-state set up, it will be a long and arduous process and the President may yet end up regretting his impulsiveness in having gone to Tokyo in the first place.

Just last night, a palace spokesperson was quick to field media questions by very categorically stating that a charter change does not rank high among the current administration’s priorities. For all we know, this is just a smokescreen; but the truth of the matter is that the notion of a Bangsamoro sub-state depends on making amendments to the constitution.

The way present government is set up as per the 1987 Constitution, it is structurally a unitary and very centralized type of government. This means that governmental rule originates from central government and is diluted as it filters down various levels of local governments. Laws are uniformly enforced across the entire republic.

The setting up of a Bangsamoro sub-state, however, entails the restructuring of government in a way that is not currently provided for by the constitution. Even then, it is not a simple matter of making a few measured amendments to it. There are many tricky issues that need to be taken into consideration.

For one, since the MILF leadership was talking of setting up its own parliamentary assembly, I do not think they are simply thinking of this assembly as one of the various levels of local government that we currently have. As a matter of fact, this very same leadership has already cited the governments of the United States and Germany as probable models. In other words, what is being suggested is a shift to a federal type of government as opposed to the unitary model that we currently employ.

There is a bit of a problem, however. The United States and Germany – along with all other countries that use the federal structure – are made up of many individual states that are bound together under a central or federal government. State governments administer in accordance with local traditions, needs and concerns. Federal government, on the other hand, administers in accordance with traditions, needs and concerns that are common to all states within the federation.

If the Bangsamoro is set up, there will effectively be two states: the Bangsamoro and the rest of the republic. Strictly speaking, whatever structure will be set up cannot be even called federalism in the normal sense. For the government of the republic to be truly federal, there has to be another “state” government to administer the rest of the country at the same level with the Bangsamoro. Central government as it is at the present, then, becomes the federal government that sits above these two “state” governments.

Getting back to the parliamentary type of government that the MILF prefers, if this happens at all, and assuming that the current central government does not change its form as well, then what will happen is that there will be a presidential type of government in the main state and a parliamentary one at the sub-state level. This is not to say that the idea cannot materialize; this is the Philippines, and we do like to do things sometimes in our own colourful way. If it does, thought, it will be highly unusual.

Assuming that such a parliament is indeed set up, special attention has to be given to nomenclature. The head of parliament cannot be called Prime Minister because this title carries with it the connotation “head of state.” The head of state, in a federal government, is the head of the federal government, which is the nation or the country; and definitely not the individual state which is only a member of the federation. To have a Prime Minister of the Bangsamoro sub-state and a President of the main state is going to be very, very unusual indeed.

It will be naïve to think that even if the government reaches an agreement to set up the Bangsamoro sub-state, all the troubles down south will magically just disappear. Even as you read this, there is an ongoing running battle between forces of the MILF and a breakaway group called the Bangsamoro Independent Freedom Fighters or BIFF. Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF, has also gone public questioning the MILF’s right to represent the Muslims in the south since the latter does not even have the majority support that it claims to have.

In other words, by sitting down with the MILF, the President met with only one major political player in the region. Culture in many provinces in Mindanao being tribal that it is, there will be those who will not give up secession as a priority goal. The proposed Bangsamoro sub-state will have its own non-military police force. A continued secessionist movement, however, is a threat to the state and has to be dealt with by a national military force. It can get messy.

Media has been airing recently more than just a few isolated moans within the military of civil-war fatigue. This is understandable. It has been a decades-old uprising that our soldiers have had to deal with. Suppressing the secessionist movement has also been expensive not just in terms of money but also in terms of actual human lives.

However, for as long as the national government cannot be certain that it is talking to a unified Muslim voice – one that has undisputed majority support among the peoples it claims to represent – then the Bangsamoro may not yet be as viable as the MILF leadership says it to be. Who knows, though? Maybe our Muslim brethren can get their acts together and we can finally attain that elusive peace. At the end of the day, whether one is Christian or Muslim, we all have the same God. Maybe He will make it happen!

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