Substate, what’s this beast?

/ 08:19 PM August 16, 2011

THE MORO Islamic Liberation Front has been calling the shots in the renewed peace talks in Mindanao following the secret meeting between President Aquino and MILF chair Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo two weeks ago.

In an attempt to throw the government off balance ahead of the resumed formal peace negotiations in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 22,  MILF senior leaders have stepped up their demand for the government to agree to its proposal to establish a nebulous creature it calls a “substate” in Mindanao for a so-called “Bangsamoro homeland.”


Shrouded with secrecy, President Aquino sneaked out to Tokyo on Aug. 4 to meet Murad to give the stalled talks a “shot in the arm”—in the effort to regain the diplomatic initiative and break four decades of stalemate. After the meeting, the results of which very little has been disclosed by either side, MILF senior officials appear to be using it to define the agenda and terms of the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

The MILF subsequently defined the issues and the framework of the discussions according to its own terms—not those of the Republic from which the MILF has attempted to secede with the establishment of a separatist Bangsamoro homeland alternately through force of arms and duplicitous diplomacy. The government appears to have been unhinged by the new demands of the MILF and now seems to be playing to the tune of the secessionist movement, with very little original proposals to counter those of the MILF.


Over the weekend, the MILF stepped up its propaganda campaign in an attempt to browbeat the government to accept its demands. Michael Mastura, a senior member of the MILF negotiating panel, tried to push the government into a corner when he challenged the President to decide whether to accept the MILF draft proposals or face losing his political capital in the event of resumed hostilities as a consequence of failed talks. Mastura tried to picture the President’s Tokyo talks with Murad as a cheap publicity stunt to enhance his popularity. Is the President, Mastura said, “willing to cast (aside) his political capital for this process”? Paraphrased, this is the issue from the MILF’s point of view:  Is the President willing to compromise on the issue of substate in exchange for ending the fighting that has been going on for more than four decades. “The issues are clear,” Mastura said. “If they will accede to using our draft as a working draft, that will fast track everything.” Does the MILF mean by “fast track” the truncation of the Republic according to MILF’s substate blueprint.

The MILF has insisted that following the Tokyo meeting it has scaled down its original demand for secession and an independent state in exchange for the establishment of a substate, of which there are rare functioning models all over the world.

According to the MILF draft, the Muslim substate would exercise all government functions, except those of national defense, foreign affairs, current and postal services—the conventional elements of a state. The draft raises the issue of what exactly is the shape of this mongrelized state. It is not clear how the national government and the substate would share powers in the exploitation and development of national economic resources. One of the most contentious issues over the scope of powers of the substate is its territorial definition. The recent statements of the  MILF suggest expansion of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao beyond its present boundaries. After the meeting with Murad, President Aquino understood that under the MILF scheme, Christians and Lumads would be affected by the proposal but that they would be given a choice of whether they would want to be part of the substate. This is a highly contentious issue.

According to Mastura, the proposed substate would be governed by a chief minister elected by an assembly as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. He does not tell us that Scotland and  Northern Ireland are integral parts of  United Kingdom, a unitary state, that does not call those segments  “substate”—which is entirely a reinvention of the concept of sovereign national states, springing from the imagination of the Islamic separatist movement in the Philippines.

The MILF has described its invention as a “special region” that has “asymetrical relations” with the national government—as Hong Kong is to China—but more than a regular local government unit. Whether or not this substate is a local government unit under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior and Local Government needs clarification in the KL talks. What offends many Filipinos is not the ambiguity of the substate but the threat of the MILF that if its draft is not accepted, it would go back to armed rebellion. In a number of opinion polls over the past few years, Filipinos have shown that they emphatically reject proposals involving the dismemberment of the national territory or a part of it being carved out to give autonomy to an insurgent separatist movement.

The MILF has recognized the substate proposal would have to hurdle constitutional issues. It has said that a provision on the substate could be appended to the 1987 Constitution  through legislation. But a number of legal experts contend that such project required a constitutional amendment, a process that is considered an extremely difficult obstacle to hurdle. It can also be politically explosive in reigniting a fiercer Mindanao war.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro homeland, browbeating, Diplomacy, Government, MILF, Mindanao, Peace talks, President Benigno S. Aquino III, stalemate, substate, War
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