Autonomy for the Muslim ethnic peoples of Mindanao was the political solution to end the war for independence waged by the Moro National Liberation Front led by Prof. Nurullaji “Nur” Misuari. First granted under the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, laws were subsequently passed to enact the agreement on “genuine” autonomy in Tripoli. However, these laws have resulted in the weakening of the powers granted. Unhappiness with the grant of autonomy led to the rise of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (founded by the late Ustadz Salamat Hashim and now led by Chair Ebrahim Murad). This necessitated government to undergo a separate peace process with the MILF from the Ramos to the present administrations.


The perceived failure of autonomy and unabated dissatisfaction of the Moro over the unjust distribution of wealth and resources in the country have pushed a good number to pursue the lure of independence, at times linked to violent extremism.

In the past, national government has offered autonomy, thinking that this will end the armed conflict in Mindanao. However, the establishment of a dubious autonomy only strengthened the call for independence by disappointed MNLF Chair Misuari.

The Supreme Court’s issuance of a TRO on the signing of the MoA on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) in 2008 further derailed the peace process and reinforced the idea that the government was insincere in the implementation of autonomy for the Bangsamoro.

After ups and downs during the Arroyo administration, the Aquino administration pursued the peace process with a single-minded purpose until the ill-fated Mamasapano Massacre, designed to capture high-value terrorists that claimed the lives of 44 Special Armed Force troops and over a dozen civilians.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law, product of months of deliberations by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) and over 500 consultations, was collateral damage. Congress junked it, as many leaders were fearful of the adverse reactions of their voters. Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Mindanao, Convenor of the Friends of Peace, had said at a media forum: “The Mamasapano tragedy sadly exposed the deeply entrenched biases and prejudices of the Filipino Christian majority. Sadder still is to learn that most of those who disapprove the BBL but know little or almost none about it are Catholics.”

As the victims’ families commemorated the anniversary of the Mamasapano Massacre last Wednesday, they and followers of President Duterte demanded a reopening of the investigations, dissatisfied with the findings. Will the investigations again derail the passage of a Bangsamoro Basic Law?

The BTC, expanded by President Duterte to include representatives of the MNLF, has been instructed to redraft the BBL. This time, it is being drafted at a time parallel to the President’s move to change our governmental system from the presidential structure to federalism. The question topmost in the minds of Bangsamoro leaders: what will happen to the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy?

Federalism is seen as a reasonable solution -- short of independence but more substantive than autonomy -- to the Mindanao conflict. If we transform into a federal system, we need to point out the importance of restructuring the form of government taking into consideration the identity, culture, and language of the Bangsamoro and Indigenous Peoples safeguarded by the Philippine Constitution. This concession was the political solution to decades of armed conflict.


The federal system of government is probably the most ideal option to address the demands to self-determination of the Bangsamoro, short of granting them independence. Federalism is a political arrangement, short of independence but better than the autonomy that Bangsamoro have now.

Last Tuesday, Swiss Ambassador Andrea Reichlin brought Dr. Nicole Toepperwien (Swiss federalist advisor) to Manila to share her findings from countries similarly faced with armed ethnic conflict. Dr. Toepperwien spoke at two important sessions: one hosted by Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III for federalism advocates and, in the afternoon, a session organized by the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni at the Asian Institute of Management.


The discussions brought out several issues about the inequities of the present system. A key one: armed ethnic conflicts are fueled by a most powerful centrist organization, ineffective in implementing policy and ungenerous in providing access to political and economic power to minority groups. Can these conflicts can be prevented or mediated by restructuring of the state? Or will more effective official policies for redistribution of power and wealth, fair electoral laws and power sharing, acceptance of self-determination do the trick? Majority of the participants believed that the present system is not conducive to implementation of equitable and effective official policies for regions outside the so-called “Imperial Manila.”


Based on our experience over the last 40 years since the Tripoli Agreement, I agree. Today, with the problems brought about by the junking of the BBL and the spread of violent extremism, armed conflicts are again looming in Mindanao. And yet the government and the MILF have been successfully negotiating for over a decade now on what is essentially a mode for power sharing between the state and the Muslim minorities, something that had been accepted in principle when government signed the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF. Many political leaders are looking at power sharing or devolution of power via federalism. In an asymmetrical federation, one or more federal states are vested with special powers not granted to other provinces, to allow for preservation of the culture and language of its settlers.

We need to distinguish between federalism and autonomy. In federations, regions participate actively in national institution and national policy making. On the other hand, in autonomy under our presidential system, we are given self-governance but we are really not participant in decision making at the national level. A federalist mode will now allow people in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao to also be participants in national decision making.

The failure of autonomy in Muslim Mindanao is not only due to the failures of the elected leaders of ARMM to govern but also to the failures of national government to support the needs of the regional government. The late Emy Boncodin, former Budget Secretary, published an assessment of the fiscal problems of ARMM. These issues that need to be considered include:


■The heavy dependence of ARMM on the National Government, principally through National Government appropriations to ARMM and IRA’s for the LGUs.

■The limited direct control of ARMM over the utilization of funds available to ARMM -- in fact, LGUs have more funds under their control than the ARMM.

■ARMM is treated like any other government department in the budgetary process, and is thus subject to budgetary decisions by politicians and bureaucrats at the national level.

■ARMM has no real autonomy to decide, on its own, the level and allocation of funds for its politically distinct mandate has to “fight” for its funds like any other department, noting the budget is detailed and input-oriented with little flexibility, making it difficult for a region like ARMM which has to cope with the uncertainties of a “conflict environment.”


With the ARMM as the subject of a peace agreement, one could have expected a significant increase in funding, rather than incremental growth for rehabilitation of conflict areas and pump-priming activities necessary to spur growth. Hope is high that a shift from the present system to federalism will provide ARMM and other regions more political representation that can ensure a more equitable sharing of pie. Hope springs eternal.


Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy. Surveil is her column in BusinessWorld.