The Decision Points on Principles agreed upon by the GPH and the MILF in April is definitely good news. Yet, there are still many contentious details that have to be ironed out.
The agreement talks about the “status quo” as unacceptable without elaborating on the state of things that are not acceptable. Since the government can offer only what is permissible under the constitution and laws, it will have to align its status quo with what it can legally offer. Thus, GRP’s status quo is restrictive to the state of autonomy in the ARMM. P.S. for the GPH in the Decision Points: “ARMM is unacceptable so let’s craft a structure that is more autonomous within the framework of the constitution and for now let’s call it a new autonomous political entity”.
The MILF does not recognize the Philippine constitution or laws and aims for radical solutions to address the grievance of the Moro people. Its view of the problematic status quo is thus broader and refers to the totality of the political, economic and social systems that marginalize the Moros. P.S. for the MILF in the Decision Points: “Surgical solutions are required to resolve the formidable problems of the Moro so sub-state as a new autonomous political entity is not off the table”.
The negotiators may be able to bridge the gap between their own versions of the status quo by acknowledging the bigger status quo—the current state of the Philippine political system marred by patronage politics, weak and corrupt institutions and dysfunctional justice system. How Moro self-determination can be real and meaningful in this setting is the crucial issue.
In my piece on the need to reach out to local political leaders in support of the peace process, Atty. Ishak Mastura reacted insightfully that political leadership in the Philippines including the ARMM survives and thrives out of transactional and patronage politics which is the hallmark of the nation’s political system. He says that in a unitary structure like the Philippines, the Bangsamoro has no opportunity to develop a new structure to determine their own future and political status since there is no negotiated settlement yet of the “Bangsamoro Question”.
How far the Bangsamoro can develop a new and meaningful self-governance structure within the dysfunctional Philippine political system is an open question. The hard fact is that independence for the Bangsamoro is off the negotiating table. This means that the Bangsamoro’s political future is intertwined with Manila. This means that the talks center on political relations between Manila and the Bangsamoro towards effective and meaningful self-governance by the latter. There is no other framework in the talks but the Philippine political system with all its imperfections.
The MILF has a choice: offer an alternative government that is more empowering, democratic and development-oriented to the Moro people or by default continue the political status quo where the Moro region is just a mere microcosm of the nation’s dysfunctional political system. War of course remains an option but it will embolden more feudal politics because the battlefield gives despots the license to rule by violence, fear and intimidation.
On the other hand, Manila cannot continue its policy of co-opting Moro leaders for peace. This has perpetuated feudal leaders who are more ruthless than their counterparts in other regions because they have much greater access to instruments of violence.
With all the posturing in the negotiations, the government and the MILF actually have a common adversary who may be more formidable than each other: the powerful interests groups in the Philippines and within the Bangsamoro that resist reforms that will threaten their hold to economic and political power. These groups must be creatively engaged and the persuasive powers of government and the MILF be made to bear upon them to support a peace formula for Mindanao that will bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power.
The challenge for the GPH and the MILF is to craft a new autonomous political entity that will usher in a new politics and governance to provide a secure, democratic and prosperous Moro society with due regard to its unique identity and culture. This can only be possible when the GPH and the MILF craft in a collaborative way a new political entity that will bring about a culture of good governance in the region. There is an opportunity in the negotiations for the Moro people to reform politics and governance that goes beyond slogans like “daang matuwid”. There is an opportunity to usher in a roadmap, laws and policies towards evolving a Moro region that truly works not just for a chosen few but for the common good.
Unless the parties use a bigger lens and be more pragmatic and flexible amidst complex political realities, the negotiations will have little chance of success.