Two Autonomous Regions Again: Why Not?

The Islamic Central Command, a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), recently asked for a regional autonomous government separate from the political entity which would be created through the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The idea was floated in the heels of a similar one, that of having two autonomous regions, which Sen. Alan Peter Cayateno said he will push for in the Senate. The idea itself is not new, since the Tripoli Agreement’s implementation got off with the creation by ex-Pres. Marcos of two such regional autonomous governments, one in Western and the other in Central Mindanao. They existed during the 1980s, until the two were unified under the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which ex-Pres. Cory Aquino created in her desire to end the Moro rebellion by an appeasement with MNLF chief Nur Misuari. But Misuari eventually rejected Cory’s formula as he did Marcos’, until ex-Pres. Ramos mobilized international pressure to get Misuari to finally sign a new peace deal, which is the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA).

Today, 19 years after it was sealed, Misuari continues to stand by the FPA, despite and because of which he has initiated a few armed jabs at the government. The latest, of course, was his adventure in Zamboanga City in September 2013, which was his way of strongly expressing his opposition to the emerging peace deal that a year later came in the form of the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB). Not only does he oppose the CAB, but he also insists that the FPA has not yet been fully implemented by the government. No amount of marketing of the BBL will likely make Misuari change his characteristically hard-headed stance, and it will probably outlive him.

Re-creating two Muslim-dominated autonomous regional governments can simplify the complicated issues and calm the inculturated fears that hound the BBL project. Let the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – where the MNLF has greater presence and influence than the MILF – remain under the ARMM (and thus preserve FPA); then let the present ARMM provinces in Central Mindanao – Lanao del Norte and Maguindanao, where the MILF is more dominant than the MNLF – get subsumed under the BBL once it hurdles Congress, which will become easier a feat if and when its territorial jurisdiction is cut by more than half. BBL will cover more territory than the present two ARRM provinces in central Mindanao, since it lists more towns outside of those two’s, plus it can employ its contiguous areas proviso later down the line.

The protracted effort by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to re-unify the MNLF and MILF is probably an impossible dream, and one which further distorts the overall peace process. The Islam religion is apparently the only meaningful commonality that the two rebel fronts’ constituents share, which enabled them to rebel and rise as one to fight for independence neither too long nor too soon ago. But geographically, culturally and historically they differ enough such that putting them in one autonomous boat will make that boat navigate in circles, never to reach an illusory or mythic common homeport. The sultanates (as distinct bodies politic) of Jolo and Maguindanao and Lanao were and never will be, in whatever form they may transpose into now and in the future, be one kingdom in heart and mind. It was only a matter of time for the MILF to split away from the MNLF.

Not that re-creating two autonomous regions will be a breeze as well. For one, Misuari is still obsessing on the inclusion of the 10 provinces mentioned in the FPA despite its plebiscite results constituting only the five present provinces – and the OIC continues to support Misuari in this issue. The issue can probably be resolved through a referendum covering those 10 provinces inside next year’s elections, or even made a part of the plebiscite to ratify the BBL.

Limiting the BBL to central Mindanao should make it easier for the MILF to serve its primary or native constituents, who exclude generally the natives of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, making such programs as the decommissioning of forces and rapid socio-economic development easier for the MILF to achieve. Time for everyone in Mindanao is no longer a luxury, except for the eternal mujaheedins.

As for Zamboanga City, having two autonomous region will free it from a nagging sense that it is pressed by the devil on the right and the deep blue sea on the left, proverbially speaking. Remaining under a vise-like security red alert, facing deadly threats day in and out for too long is not good for its residents’ psycho-social and economic health. That is why it is necessary to think and act out of the box now, tomorrow may be too late. (ZABIDA)

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