Bangsamoro: a question of consistency and constitutionality

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

The article last week (“Bangsamoro: An Islamic State?”) elicited comments that allow me to further clarify my thinking on the matter. And ultimately my thinking on the matter remains unchanged: while peace in Mindanao is definitely desired, solutions must not be rushed, and that the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the Bangsamoro Basic Law (CAB/BBL) do not provide that solution.

One reader insightfully commented on the possibility of indigenous peoples demanding the same treatment as that given to Muslims, a matter I raised previously in this column. Indeed, with a population of 14 million to 17 million (depending on which numbers you rely on), they are far more numerous than the five million Muslims, of which it is doubtful if the Bangsamoro is truly representative due to differing tribal loyalties. Also, although Muslims are indeed more concentrated in the South, nevertheless, again in scope of territory claimed (by way of ancestral domain or ancestral lands), indigenous peoples’ territorial claim is more substantial (constituting around 20% of the Philippine’s total land area).

Hence, the consistency issue: inasmuch as indigenous peoples have a far larger population, claim a bigger land area, consistently proclaimed their being of the Philippines and are proudly Filipinos, and -- most importantly -- have been quite peaceful in their advocacy for better rights and contented themselves with resorting to our legal system, then the indigenous peoples have comparatively been given short shrift indeed.

Another issue has to do with how some justify the Bangsamoro agreements and draft law by advocating for a more “flexible” reading of the Constitution. Their position is that the words of the Constitution should be interpreted “liberally” (actually, loosely) to fit the policy advocacy of the present. This is representative of the “living Constitution” theory so beloved by the “progressive” Left.

But ultimately, it is just that: a theory. Which upon closer inspection makes no sense when one considers how carefully words are considered during the Constitutional Commission process and the fact that we have amendatory provisions in the Constitution. Put another way, if one can interpret the Constitution any which way one wants, then what’s the point of having an amendatory provision?

University of Navarre-trained law expert Cristina Montes explains the matter more directly: “With all due respect, this mentality toward the Constitution is flawed and dangerous. First, it assumes that only lawyers have the duty to uphold the Constitution. Second, it forgets that the Constitution has been enacted precisely by ‘the sovereign Filipino people’ to define and limit the exercise of the fundamental powers of government. The flexible reading of the Constitution that the said legal expert espouses could justify exercises of government powers beyond the limits imposed by the Constitution, and thus could spiral into tyranny or anarchy. This would defeat the purpose for enacting a written Constitution in the first place.”

Furthermore, as Ms. Montes explains:

“[The] comparison of the situation of the Muslim population in the Philippines with slavery and apartheid is off-base. The situation of the Muslim population in the Philippines is a far cry from that of the blacks under the regimes of slavery and apartheid. The Muslims in the Philippines enjoy the same rights as other citizens under the Constitution, including freedom of religion and equal protection of law.

“The Sharia courts are part of the Philippine judicial system, and Congress enacted the Muslim Code of Personal Laws to accommodate their unique religious customs. The Constitution even provides for the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. No other religious group in the Philippines enjoys governmental protection to that extent. The issue is not whether or not the rights of the Muslims in the Philippines are to be upheld, but rather, whether they have a right to secede from the Republic of the Philippines and establish their own Islamic state.”

On another front, another reader demanded a solution alternative to the CAB/BBL. But that is distinct from the issue of the CAB/BBL’s flaws. Even assuming there is currently no alternative solution, such still does not and will not make the CAB/BBL right.

Having said that, I again ask: whatever happened to the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-the Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area, otherwise known as the BIMP-EAGA?

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 the economic, more than anything else. 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/BBL’s “peace” of made-up conditions that fail to conform to the dictates of our Constitution. And most damningly, it is a “peace” that demands the Philippines meekly submit to the accusation that it indeed inflicted “hurts” on Muslims.