Sulu political stalwart and former Governor Abdusakur Tan delivered this message during a forum on federalism in Patikul, Sulu, 6 December 2016, conducted by the Sulu Provincial Government in partnership with Sulu State College Faculty Association and the ProPolitics for Peace Project of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance.


Good morning to all distinguished resource persons, participants and representatives of organizations, entities and advocates of peace.


The executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, Atty. Benedicto R. Bacani, is a familiar face on endeavors such as the one we are holding now, and co-hosted by the Sulu Provincial Government, a forum on “Federalism, Autonomy, and the Mindanao and Sulu Peace Process”.


Atty. Bacani can bear me out that on August of last year at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati, I was also invited to attend the “Dialogue on House and Senate Bills on the BBL: Analysis, Challenges and Prospects”.


I am tasked this morning to present “Sulu’s Perspective on Autonomy and Governance”, which I think is the province of our scholars and experts in the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, under the stewardship of our good Atty. Bacani here. But I have the benefit of ground experience having spent most of my adult life in the realm of public service, and with pride but tempered with all humility, I can publicly state that during the “best of times, and the worst of times” never did I leave Sulu to seek refuge, comfort and security elsewhere, away from my place of birth.


For now, let us leave the matter as a backdrop to the current topic of discussion, which is Autonomy and Governance in Mindanao and Sulu.


When we speak or even mention autonomy, the term of our reference is the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the ARMM, being the most concrete product of the peace process of more than 40 years ago. From the variables of perspective, ARMM can be mentioned in a term of endearment, while others frown on it as an epitome of failures.


It is public knowledge that I made a political bid for the ARMM regional governorship during the recent national elections, and some sectors and individuals may brush aside my aforementioned assertion as mere sourgraping, forgetting that I have been calling for reforms in the ARMM for decades now, started during the time of President Ramos. It even reached a point when I publicly called for its dissolution while serving as Governor of Sulu when I personally saw and experienced the disenchantment of LGUs towards the regional grouping because of red tapes and other administrative hindrances. The ARMM indeed, is just another tier of an overstaffed bureaucracy and where accumulated power and wealth can be tools of political oppression. The Maguindanao Massacre should be remembered as a barometer of unbridled power.


As expediencies to satisfy the main actors in the peace overtures it was the Aquino administration who brought down the gavel in a public judgment and sentenced ARMM as a “FAILED EXPERIMENT”, it was the powers-that-be and not Sakur Tan, lest some may conveniently forget.


But it joggles the mind and muddle rhymes and reasons, then after passing judgment the very same ultimate controller of purse allocated a gargantuan budget and poured in billions of development funds to the region. For what? To resuscitate the dead guinea pig of a failed experiment; or as a convenient conduit to funnel funds to finance election expenses at the expense of development in component provinces and city of ARMM?


Imaginations can run wild when statistics show that the incidences of poverty in the region is the highest in the country, which indicate that more than half of the people in ARMM are considered poor, while on the other hand, the region is receiving one of the highest allotment per capita in the country. These statistics are from the same administration which sentenced ARMM to failure.


When this issue was raised by the Kusug Tausug representative in Congress during the budget hearing, the ARMM officials, led by the regional governor, merely sidestepped the issue as mere sourgraping by Rep. Shernee A. Tan as her father lost in his electoral bid. It was not a low-blow, but rather a below-the-ankle blow by any decent standard.


The Kusug Tausug representative accepted the threat of an audit of the Local Government in Sulu by the ARMM officials, by making her own dare that the audit be done in the entire region starting from the highest regional office down to the barangay level.


Not holding any government position at the moment is not a hindrance for me to air the grievances of my people or make complaints and forward them to concerned government offices. Being a simple taxpayer, but one of the highest taxpayers in the region, affords me the inalienable right to speak out on all matters that affect Sulu and its people.


Due to the devolution of national agencies and offices to ARMM, it gained control on the disbursement and flow of development funds to component provinces. More often than not, the control of funds is an effective tool in political arm-twisting. We have relayed these concerns in our correspondences to the Office of the President, DPWH, DOH, the Ombudsman and others, and we are already in receipt of acknowledgements and responses from the addressees and await any commensurate actions to be taken. In our dinner with the President two months ago, we stated in no uncertain terms that if the situation continues the way it is, we proposed that development funds be rather channeled from the Office of the President through Region 9.


We keep on emphasizing the fact that our complaints are based on our sincere wish and even prayer, that ARMM should be free from the typecast which are demeaning and condescending. We cannot expect the regional governor to be in the know of what’s happening on the ground or if he is made aware of the complaints of the people clamoring for even the barest of services.


Our efforts should be viewed in the right context, not in the paranoid mindset that we are pinning him to the ground or that we are waging a vendetta. Any improvement of services initiated by his office borne out our concerns and reports will be to his credit and to the improvement of the ARMM as a whole. He will be basking in accolades, not us. I hope we made this point vividly clear.


When we are asked to choose between autonomy and federalism, our choice is clear. We do not want an autonomy that is like the one personified by the present ARMM. For us here in Sulu it’s simply anything but.


In the matter of peace and security in Mindanao and Sulu which now hinges on the peace process and federalism, we do admit that the so-called peace roadmap is in for bumps and humps.


For all intents and purposes the BBL is rendered moot and academic except perhaps as a symbolic banner of victory for the MILF now that the Duterte administration is pushing for a federal system of government which will be laid down not only for the region but for the entire country in an overall solution that will resolve the “constitutional infirmities” in the proposed BBL in both versions if the House and the Senate.


Federalism is novel to the Philippines and it is understandable if it may appear frightening to some, changes usually are. Let us leave this matter to the wisdom of the national leadership but let us not be curtailed nor hampered in presenting ground opinions for consideration and due study.


The executive order reconstituting the Bangsamoro Transition Commission or BTC has already been signed and expanded to be all-inclusive. Aside from the main player, the MILF, the Government Panel will also appoint members to the commission, to include the MNLF, a seat for the Sultanates and other stakeholders.


The intention is indeed noble, but realities are expected to bite, which we hope will not be disruptively deep.


Let us take the seat allocated for the MNLF for instance. Will it be the representation from the main MLF force of Chairman Nur Misuari or from other splinter factions? How do we incorporate the 1996 Peace Agreement with the MNLF and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) into a legal and binding document acceptable to both MNLF and MILF? How do we deal with criminal elements clothing themselves as revolutionaries?


It is an accepted fact that the island provinces of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Sulu are the traditional stronghold of Chairman Nur Misuari. Even after the 1996 Peace Agreement he still has loyal combatants in place and maintains considerable mass support in the Zamboanga Peninsula. Misuari will use these factors to his advantage and he will not play second-fiddle to any group, MILF included.


In both versions of the BBL and now in the composition of the expanded BTC, a seat from the Sultanate will be offered. It is not determined or stated in definite terms if the representation refers to the Sultanate of Sulu, Maguindanao or Buayan or of the emerging Maranaw Royal Houses. Is the Sultanate institutionalized under our laws and statutes for it to be clothed with legality?


On April 8, 2016, five heirs of the Sulu Sultanate formed themselves into the Royal Council of the Sulu Sultanate and only last 29th of November this year, they honored me with a conferment of a royal rank of Datu Shahbandar and its Special Envoy. The five sultans granted me authority to speak for and on behalf of the council on matters which received their prior Royal Assent.


I’m stating this to punctuate the point that the Royal Council of the Sulu Sultanate is more concerned on larger matters and have no intention whatsoever to enter the fray on the BTC, which the council believes is not the right venue to pursue their interests.


Any steps taken in this process of transition must not be seen as merely stop-gap solutions or convenient palliatives or we may risk opening scars of old wounds. The suspicion that the government is applying the divide-and-rule tactics will again surface and gain credence. It is indeed a political tightrope.


In the matter of the delineation of areas comprising federal states, it is our view that this would be very sensitive an issue which requires due diligence and references to historical facts and earlier agreements like the Tevetoglu Draft which gave birth to the Tripoli Agreement. Let us not cluster areas which even individually, cannot cater to its needs. To ponder clustering the present ARMM into a single federal state will be perpetuating the situation we earlier expounded, meaning we will remain the poorest federal state.


At this juncture allow me to elucidate on a point concerning the Muslims in the Philippines. We should ask ourselves if we are content to remain enclosed in an arrangement and continually be tagged as minority, or should we be bold enough to flow with the mainstream and prove our worth as individuals and as people within the larger Filipino Nation?


FROM THE IAG ARCHIVES: Politics and Governance for Peace: Opportunities and Challenges from Sulu Perspective and Experience


Why should Muslims seemingly demand special treatment as if they are different from the rest?


We should take a cue from the history of the Afro-Americans who fought for their equal rights and civil liberties and take lessons from the fate that befell the American Indians and the Australian aborigines. No one ever imagined that one day a colored American will be president of America, simply because they repudiated the special treatment offered to them then or what was termed then as affirmative action, but instead demanded and fought for equal rights and equal opportunities just like the mainstream or majority white. Look at them now!


In pondering the creation of federal states, we believe that it would be erroneous to cluster Muslim areas into a single state. That would merely be a name change from ARMM to something else. The traditional Muslim areas now fenced within ARMM must break loose from the mindset of being a minority but should instead opt to being clustered together with more affluent territories, even if they are non-Muslims, in a federal make-up.


The only opposition I would expect would mostly be coming from self-serving politicians who are afraid to lose power and influence in a new set-up where their traditional mass base will now be diminished. We should be willing to sacrifice for the betterment of our people.


FROM THE IAG ARCHIVES: Sulu's 6 talking points on the BBL


In consideration of some of the issues aforementioned, let us not deliberately side-step the value and importance of the Sulu Archipelago of the old, which bears heavily on the security, development and human progress in this part of Southeast Asia.


The Sabah issue must not be taken lightly. The Malaysian hand has always been seen from the birth of the MNLF as an aftermath of the Jabidah controversy, the subsequent fall-out of Nur Misuari and his arrest in Sabah, the further divide of the MNLF with the creation of the Executive Committee of 15, and of course the breaking away of the MILF.


In fact there is weight in the presumption that the leadership of the new front, the MILF, was conveniently arranged to be from central Mindanao away from the material territory, historically and geographically, which is the Sulu Archipelago. This is an open secret, but everyone will not touch it with a mile-long pole. Without a just and fair resolution of the Sabah issue, uncertainties will continue to land on our shores like the endless waves and ripples from the Sulu Sea.


The peace roadmap is not a single straight highway ladies and gentlemen, but a network of alleys and streets converging on a single starting point towards a single destination of a bright horizon for all.


Thank you.