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09:08 PM July 21st, 2013

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The move for broader autonomy for Muslim Mindanao is continuing beyond what has already been outlined in the 1987 Constitution. The basic constitutional principle on the subject says, “There shall be created autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities, and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Forming autonomous regions is in fact more than just a question of privilege for these two regions. It is a question of right. One of the riches of the Filipino nation is the diversity of cultures found in it. These diverse cultures, as a matter of right, must be allowed to flourish. No one culture should be allowed to crush any other. Thus, the basis for the establishment of autonomous regions is homogeneity of the culture of the area and its distinctiveness from other cultures, and not just geographic accident.

The phrase “Muslim Mindanao” should not be construed as meaning that all of Mindanao is Muslim. It simply means those areas of Mindanao which are predominantly Muslim. The phrase Muslim Mindanao is used in much the same way that the phrase Christian Philippines does not suggest that all of the inhabitants of the Philippines are Christian.

The creation of the autonomous regions, however, does not mean the establishment of sovereignties distinct from that of the republic.  These autonomous regions can be established only “within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Autonomy in the Cordilleras has been at a standstill. Attempts at formulating a Basic Law for the Cordilleras have not been to the satisfaction of the inhabitants and therefore have been rejected.

Muslim Mindanao has succeeded in implementing an Organic Act which for several years now has formed the fundamental structure for the government of the region. The Organic Act, however, is now slowly on the way to being replaced by the Organic Act for the Bangsamoro. The process of replacement started with the approval of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. But that was all it was—a framework. The negotiators have been feverishly working to put flesh on the framework.

The approval by the negotiators of the wealth sharing agreement is a major step in the direction of fortifying the desired autonomy. The document embodying the agreement is entitled “Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing.”  Principally it consists of formulas for the sharing of taxes and revenues from rich natural resources that are found in the territory. The details are found in the document.

The importance of the annex is highlighted thus: “The parties acknowledge that wealth creation (or revenue creation and sourcing) is important for the operation of the Bangsamoro, considering that the Bangsamoro territory is among the most underdeveloped in the Philippines due to the decades-long conflict. Moreover, the existing tax base therein is very limited. There is a need to bridge the financial gap between the Bangsamoro’s prospective needs and the revenues being created therein. In this way, the Bangsamoro can catch up with the more progressive areas of the country.”

What follows next? A lot more work.

An important point to remember is that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is governed by two organic acts: the 1987 Constitution and the Organic Act for Muslim Mindanao. When the framework agreement was announced we were assured that its completion will not involve constitutional amendment. If it should and if the President wants it to go through, he may have to modify his position on amending the current Constitution. Constitutional amendment will require tremendous amount of work, not to mention controversies.

At this stage of the negotiations dealing only with wealth creation and sharing, however, I do not see any need for constitutional amendment.  What has been touched so far does not involve the control and development of natural resources but only taxes and revenues from natural resources found in the territory. To a great extent this can be handled by ordinary legislation.

However, the determination of which areas containing natural resources can be covered as special sources of revenue may have to await the determination of the extent of the Bangsamoro territory. As I see it, the territory envisioned for the Bangsamoro is larger than what is covered under the Organic Act for Muslim Mindanao. Under the 1987 Constitution the territories included in the ARMM covered only provinces, cities, municipalities and geographic areas which voted for inclusion in the ARMM. The framework agreement envisions a larger area.

So far, the general reaction to the draft revenue creation and sharing agreement has been positive. Although it is still a draft, the negotiators deserve congratulations for the hard work.

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