Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why ARMM isn't enough

Six times the electricity has turned off for several hours and then on again. The Bangsamoro sitting in the conference room of the Sulu State College Hostel in Jolo, Sulu have opened the windows and converted folders into fans. But the men in their kupyas and the women in their hijabs don’t really seem to be bothered by the heat. They’ve got more important things on their minds. Like discussing their right to self-determination (RSD). For them this means ‘self-rule’, ‘justice’, ‘identity’, ‘cultural integrity’, ‘having our own government system.’ Heads nodding, hands clapping, and shouts of approval reverberate through the room.

Last February 15 to 17 in Tawi-Tawi and on May 3 to 4 in Basilan, Bangsamoro from non-government organizations, people’s organizations, professional organizations, the academe, the health sector, the business sector, and the religious sector gathered to talk about their aspirations for self-determination. This May 14 to 15 it is the turn of the Bangsamoro civil society organizations (SCOs) of Sulu to contribute their opinions on the matter.

What kind of self-determination do we want? Isn’t the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) enough? In the next months, there are going to be seven (7) more Bangsamoro CSO Consultations in Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, and Cagayan de Oro; Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental and Iligan; Maguindanao and Shariff Kabungsuan; Davao, North Cotabato, and Caraga; Socksargen; Zamboanga Peninsula; and the last will be in Palawan and the National Capital Region (NCR).

The participating Bangsamoro CSOs are neither pro government nor pro revolutionary; they are representing themselves in the fight for radical reform. For the first time, Bangsamoro CSOs do not anymore want to be in the sidelines as mere supporters of evacuees and civilians whose lives have been turned upside down by clashes between Filipino and American soldiers against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Misuari Breakaway Group (MBG), and so on. For the first time, Bangsamoro CSOs want to make decisions about their own welfare and not let others do it for them. They do not, however, intend to replace the initial victories of the MILF and the MNLF in the peace processes with the Philippine government, but instead do a parallel movement.

This means monitoring interim agreements and human rights in the on-going peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF and the on-going tri-partite review of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. It also means engaging in massive educational and information campaign about the peace processes in a way that will also generate local and international solidarity support. The Bangsamoro CSOs further plan to oppose and expose the spoilers and provocateurs and their vested interests in the peace process while at the same time work for the unity of the Bangsamoro through intra-dialogues and consultations that will also educate the Bangsamoro on the issue of self-determination and freedom.

As an important sector of Bangsamoro society, the Bangsamoro CSOs strongly feel they are the missing link in the peace process. Ideally, they should be the counterpart of the MILF in the negotiating panel in the same way that the Philippine government has its own CSO counterpart. But whether or not the Bangsamoro CSOs are given a seat at the peace table, with their sheer number, skills, competence, and commitment, they can make a difference because every day, they are the ones dealing with issues that directly and indirectly affect the Bangsamoro.

The Bangsamoro CSOs are aware, however, that signing the peace agreement is not the end–it’s only a political part of the peace process. They are concerned with helping the peace talks succeed yet are also worried about what will happen to the MILF and the Government of the Philippines after signing the peace agreement. This is because experiences of new nations like Aceh and East Timor who have achieved the right to self-determination through decades of armed struggle, show that in order to have peace, agreements need to go beyond just talking about who will own what piece of land and include agreements about how to take care of the environment. For indeed, true development is more than just constructing houses for the homeless, farm-to-market roads, bridges, schools, health centers, and hospitals in places where there are none.

Needless to say, most of the time in the series of Bangsamoro CSO Consultations is spent in focused group discussions (FGDs) talking about realities and aspirations of the different sectors of Bangsamoro society and then agreeing on a common position and actions that will uplift their lives. The provincial meetings will end around April 2009 in a National Bangsamoro CSO Congress, the culminating activity where all the aspirations and recommendations of the country’s Bangsamoro CSOs will be consolidated into a Bangsamoro Civil Society Organization Development Framework.

The plan is to make it the roadmap for everyone–MILF, MNLF, the Government of the Philippines (GOP)–and all other Bangsamoro and non-Bangsamoro stakeholders in ARMM whose actions impact on all forms of Bangsamoro existence. These include environment and land tenure, peace and security, political governance and electoral system, education, economic development, cultural integrity, social services, human rights, as well as protecting women, youth and children. Nothing important should be left out in the making of the Bangsamoro Development Framework–an enormous task–given the breadth and depth of the discussions on self-determination. The challenge is how to integrate all the outputs in the ten consultations held in different locations in the country.

Already, members of the National Steering Committee (NSC), the ones in charge of coordinating the implementation of planned activities, are noticing that because the Bangsamoro CSOs in each region experience different realities, their aspirations are different too. For instance, the Bangsamoro CSOs in the Basilan Provincial Consultation emphasized the importance of integrating Western and Islamic education. On the other hand, the Bangsamoro CSOs in the Sulu Provincial Consultation found it necessary to have a purely Islamic curriculum for the Bangsamoro.

Always the debates wind down to what’s the best form of self-determination for the Bangsamoro. While some see nothing wrong with still being part of the Philippine Republic as basic services are delivered, others say that’s not enough and see self-rule as a better option–with no control whatsoever by the Philippine Republic.

The bottomline is to be proactive. “Bangsamoro,” somebody in the audience explains, “are like a family who have the money to replace their ramshackle house with a new, concrete one. But while waiting for the construction of their new house to be finished, should the family remain in their old house full of leaks and suffer every time it rains? Of course not. A practical family would cover all the holes in the roof of their old house while waiting for their new house to be finished.”

The challenge for the Bangsamoro who aspire for a certain form of self-determination is to not just be waiting around for it to happen but work towards reforming the systems that are already in place. On the other hand, the challenge for the other citizens in the country is to free their hearts of centuries of prejudice against the Bangsamoro, embrace each other’s differences, and support the Bangsamoro in their struggle to achieve the form of self-determination they deserve.

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