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Commentary

Expanded ARMM as alternative to BBL

01:29 AM April 21, 2015

ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS are staking so much on the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that we wonder if there is anything in it that merits all this support. President Aquino goes to the extent of saying tongue in cheek that he wishes that someone can come up with a better alternative to the BBL. He asks his critics to read the bill, because if they did, all their misgivings would disappear.

We did something more. We compared the BBL to the existing law on Muslim autonomy, Republic Act No. 9054, or the Act To Strengthen the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and came to one conclusion: Mr. Aquino has terribly misjudged the ARMM. He said precipitately that the ARMM is a failed experiment, when a little more thought will show that it is more conducive to national unity than the BBL, is constitutional, and can achieve equally meaningful changes in Muslim autonomy.

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The telling difference between the BBL and the ARMM is that the BBL vests enormously more powers in the proposed Bangsamoro government than are allowed under the Constitution. When we think of how these powers can be exercised once the Bangsamoro comes into existence, we fear for the future of our republic.

We believe that expanding and improving the ARMM make up a better alternative. There are three reasons for our view, summarized thus:

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  1. The ARMM avoids the ideological baggage of the BBL. Both the ARMM and the BBL have preambles that explain the purpose of these laws. But that of the ARMM says quite directly that the people of the ARMM—Christians, Muslims and all ethnic groups—are establishing a regional autonomous government in Muslim Mindanao that will be reflective of their identity and aspirations within the framework of the Constitution and sovereignty of the republic. These words signify that we are but one people despite our cultural diversity and that we live under a regime which respects our different customs, traditions and religions at the same time that it unites us under one government. Simple and inspiring.

The BBL, on the other hand, is divisive.

Immediately it goes into an excursus on the distinctiveness of the Bangsamoro people, their historical right to Mindanao as their ancestral land and right to self-determination, with nary a word about respecting the Constitution and territorial sovereignty of the republic. Of course, they have a right to espouse even these ideas. The Bill of Rights gives them the license to do so. But to mention these ideas in a legislative document that is meant to apply to all, Muslim and non-Muslim, is hardly edifying. It makes the BBL a vehicle for the propagation of the ideology of one ethnic group, alienating and marginalizing other groups in a land that belongs as much to them as to the Muslims.

The ARMM says nothing about historic rights and self-determination but moves toward goals on which we can all agree. In the inner pages of the ARMM we come across provisions that also respect and foster cultural diversity and fix the ancestral lands of the cultural minorities without injecting any ideological divide among the people.

  1. The ARMM is constitutional, the BBL is not. There is only one organ envisioned by the 1987 Constitution to serve as the regional government of Muslim Mindanao: the ARMM. Section 19, Article X says that the first Congress elected under the Constitution shall within 18 months pass the organic act of the autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. An organic act was indeed passed by Congress on Aug. 1, 1989, and ratified in a plebiscite on Nov. 17, 1989: RA 6734 creating the ARMM.

The ARMM, once created, stays. While it may have come into existence through ordinary legislation, by mandate of Article X it became a constitutional body, much like the Commission on Elections or the Commission on Audit, which may not be abolished or replaced except through constitutional amendment. The BBL is an ordinary statute that cannot repeal the ARMM. It may strengthen or improve the ARMM, but it cannot replace it with another institution or entity like the Bangsamoro. To do this, we need to amend the Constitution.

The distinction between the ARMM and the Bangsamoro is not a matter of nomenclature. There is so radical a change in the structure of government that the Bangsamoro cannot simply be a spin-off of the ARMM. They are disparate entities. One is constitutional, the other is not.

The ARMM fits into the unitary and presidential system of our national government. It provides for executive and legislative departments on the local level that are popularly elected and whose laws are subject to the Constitution and national laws. On the other hand, following the Malaysian model, the Bangsamoro is constituted by a parliament which chooses the executive only from among its members. This violates Section 18, Article X that the executive must be representative of the constituent political units, which can only be if one is popularly elected. What is worse is that the parliament assumes powers that are exclusive in nature, meaning they cannot be reviewed, amended or changed by Congress. This contradicts Section 20 which says that the legislative powers of an autonomous region are subject to the Constitution and national laws.

  1. Equally meaningful changes in local autonomy can be achieved through the ARMM. There are other provisions in the BBL that are of doubtful constitutional validity, but for now let us concede that it also contains workable provisions. What is important is that all the proposed changes in the BBL that are constitutional can be accommodated within the framework of the ARMM. At least we are pursuing these reforms through a constitutional body.

In fact, many of the institutional changes in the BBL have roots in the ARMM. A reading of the ARMM organic act will show that such matters as fiscal autonomy, control of natural resources and funding are already covered by it. They only require improvement as the circumstances dictate.

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Congress should consider an alternative bill to strengthen and expand the ARMM.

Mario Guariña III is a former associate justice of the Court of Appeals.

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