Bangsamoro agreement: More problem than solution

was my Trade Tripper column in the weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Longtime readers of this column know our objections to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro or CAB (stretching as far back to the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain of President Gloria Arroyo). As I kept pointing out, all four of international law’s elements for statehood have been granted to the Bangsamoro, now just needing a fateful declaration from it that it is indeed a new state.

That the Bangsamoro is geared toward statehood independent of the Philippines is palpable. One sees that in Article I.5 of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (which forms an integral part of the Comprehensive Agreement).

The Bangsamoro has been granted all the powers of a state: police powers, taxation, and eminent domain. It even has its own executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. At this point, for the Philippines to refuse “recognition” is inutile. The fact that it’s provided for under the agreements that the Bangsamoro and the Philippine government has an “asymmetric” relationship means nothing.

The argument that people should not worry as the planned Basic Law could fix the infirmities in the CAB is incorrect, for two reasons: one, the Basic Law cannot “fix” (amend) the express provisions of the CAB; and two, the Basic Law is only applicable to those who admit themselves Filipinos and subject to the Constitution.

Some argue that the remedy is for the CAB to be declared unconstitutional. I hope they’re right. But it can also be argued that a declaration of unconstitutionality is futile at this point.

The fact is, the government, by (consciously or inadvertently) agreeing to use specific international law terms in the CAB (such as the unwitting use of the words “self-determination,” which technically under international law means “secession”), and the participation of other states in the process (e.g., Malaysia) has arguably elevated the CAB to the level of an international instrument. And it is in the nature of international agreements that they are not to be thwarted by local laws (including the Constitution).

This is not to mention the fact that the CAB may not even bring the peace for which all these constitutional and legal infirmities were done.

The CAB works on the presumption that there is a “Bangsamoro,” which is actually disputed by some experts. And even if such exists, the CAB involved only the Moro International Liberation Front, which constitutes one group within the Muslim population. This is not even mentioning the large indigenous peoples’ population, whose numbers actually rival that of the Muslims.

How that one group is to legitimately claim political credibility over the others remain to be seen.

With all the troubles that this CAB is bringing (and is expected to bring), I got to wondering: whatever happened to the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-the Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area, otherwise known as the BIMP-EAGA?

The BIMP-EAGA was a project started during the presidency of Fidel Ramos and had for its objectives “increased intra- and extra-trade among EAGA focus areas; increased investments in the EAGA sub-region by 10%, and increased tourism arrivals in the EAGA sub-region.” One of its defining characteristics is a strong working relationship between the private and public sectors. And according to most accounts, it worked.

In its early days, the BIMP-EAGA made gains in the area of transportation (both for goods and people), telecommunications and tourism. The latter had the collateral effect of raising awareness in the region, thus giving strong potential for investment.

Admittedly, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis seriously hampered BIMP-EAGA’s progress. But the BIMP-EAGA countries plowed on, gaining focus on transport linkages, agro-industry and tourism sectors, fisheries, energy, trade and investment.

It is expected that with the coming ASEAN integration, BIMP-EAGA can play a crucial role in its outcome, but not without adjustments coming from EAGA members themselves.

From the Philippine perspective, the problem is that succeeding administrations have paid mere lip service to this project. Surely, there were recent government nods to “regional and international cooperation,” as well as the Davao City-General Santos City-Tahuna-Bitung sea route. But the latter is more of a private sector initiative than anything else.

The fact is, we already have a constitutionally approved autonomous system in place in that area and that is the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

And most of ARMM’s problems are traceable to economic issues, more than anything else. Despite its wealth in resources, it remains an impoverished area, with a per capita gross regional domestic product of around 70% below that of the national average.

Ironically, ARMM depends on the national government for a huge bulk of its revenue needs. And yet that is what the BIMP-EAGA was designed to solve.

The BIMP-EAGA is certainly a more palatable, mature route than the CAB’s “peace” made up of conditions that fail to conform to the dictates of our Constitution. And most damningly, it is a “peace” that demands that the Philippines meekly submit to the accusation that it indeed inflicted “hurts” on Muslims.