ARMM @ 25 gives way to Bangsamoro | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

ARMM @ 25 gives way to Bangsamoro

Twenty-five years ago, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao came to existence. The 1987 Constitution provided for the creation of two autonomous regions—one in the Cordillera and the other in Muslim Mindanao. The experiment in the Cordillera never materialized, but the one in Muslim Mindanao took off when Republic Act No. 6734 (“An Act Providing for an Organic Act for the [ARMM]”) was ratified by four provinces on Nov. 17, 1989, after being signed on Aug. 1, 1989, by P-Noy’s mother, President Corazon Aquino. The four provinces that ratified the law in a plebiscite were Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the first to constitute the ARMM.

The first election in the ARMM was held on Feb. 17, 1990, and Zacaria Candao was sworn in as the first ARMM governor on July 6, 1990.

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The ARMM supplanted the two existing autonomous Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (LTP 9 and 12). The provinces and cities that voted “no” in the plebiscite formed the new Regions 9 and 12.

The Moro National Liberation Front rejected the ARMM setup as a unilateral implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. The rejection created a condition of “no peace, and no war” in Southern Mindanao. With the policy of all-out peace under President Fidel Ramos, the peace talks between the government and the MNLF resumed anew. It took four years of negotiation (1992-1996) to arrive at the final peace agreement (FPA), the supposed final implementation of the Tripoli Agreement.

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There were two phases in the implementation of the 1996 FPA. Phase 1 was the establishment of the two transitional mechanisms: the five-member Southern Philippines Council on Peace and Development and the 81-member Consultative Assembly. Then MNLF chair Nur Misuari became the concurrent ARMM governor and chair of the two transitional mechanisms.

Phase 2 was the enactment of the amendatory law to RA 6734. On March 31, 2001, RA 9054 (“An Act to Strengthen and Expand the Organic Act for the [ARMM]”) became law. Then on Aug. 14, 2001, a plebiscite was called in 13 provinces; five provinces and one city eventually ratified the law. The four original components of the ARMM plus the province of Basilan and the city of Marawi constituted the expanded ARMM.

In 2001, the expanded ARMM had its first election, and the MNLF’s Parouk Hussin became its first elected governor under RA 9054. It was this ARMM that became notorious as a bloated bureaucracy with nearly 30,000 personnel. Close to 80 percent of its budget was utilized in personal services and the rest on maintenance and other operating expenses. The personnel were classified as the “real” employees and those who reported only on the 15th and 30th of each month to collect their paychecks. “Ghost” employees, including teachers and officials, as well as ghost schools, infrastructures and services became as notorious as ghost voters.

In short, the kalakaran (system) in the ARMM became so rotten and untenable that when the Maguindanao massacre happened on Nov. 23, 2009, the relevance of the whole structure was put in question.

It was no accident that when P-Noy became president in 2010, one of his primary concerns was to end “corrupt practices, dynastic politics and political entitlements” by declaring the ARMM a “failed experiment.” In 2011, he designated officers in charge of the region, from the governor and vice governor down to the members of the Regional Legislative Assembly. The platform for the new faces at the ARMM was “Reform. “

P-Noy entrusted the task of cleaning up the proverbial Augean stables to Gov. Mujiv Hataman (a Yakan with Tausug blood)—an assignment of “ghostbusting” in the bureaucracy, particularly the Department of Education. All employees were required to report daily to work; bundy clocks with biometrics were introduced. Officials and rank and file were also required to attend flag-raising and flag-retreat activities, then unknown in the ARMM.

For a long time, legitimate teachers and other employees in the ARMM had no access to the benefits and privileges under the Government Service Insurance System. The regular salary deductions were not remitted to the GSIS, resulting in the suspension of all benefits and privileges, even retirement pensions—a case of outright theft!

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It took months of talks among the ARMM, GSIS and Department of Budget and Management, but a settlement was reached with a proviso that criminal cases should be filed against the perpetrators. The GSIS benefits and privileges of all ARMM employees, including teachers, are now fully restored.

Another significant reform concerns the infamous ghost projects. Under the “return to sender” arrangement, national agencies allocated project funds to the ARMM, which then reported the completion of projects and infrastructures although these were nonexistent. The funds were subsequently divided between the national agencies and ARMM officials in a previously agreed “wealth-sharing.”

Was this anomaly completely stopped under the ARMM reform government? The responses range from “yes” to “reduced” to “selective.” It’s agreed, however, that big steps have been taken to stamp out corruption in the region

But the real reform lies in the delivery of basic services, particularly healthcare and education. While results and impacts have yet to be fully felt, strides are being made to respond adequately to constituents in remote and destitute areas. There’s still a long way to go, but the big difference is that now, there is a palpable hope among the people, and no longer the hopelessness that once marked their lives.

ARMM @ 25 has found a “home” among its constituents. But it has to give way to the new autonomous political entity called Bangsamoro. There are some fears and insecurities about the future, but generally the people believe that Bangsamoro is a step forward to greater autonomy and prosperity for the region and all its constituent units.

As the ARMM prepares to bow out of existence, there is confidence that the reforms it has begun will thrive and take root. We will have a happy ending yet!

Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI, is with the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, Cotabato City.

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