Hussein L. Macarambon is a Partner of the Peace and Economic Development in Mindanao Consulting, Inc. (PEDeM) and a Lecturer at the Political Science Department, Ateneo de Manila University. This article was published in BusinessWorld’s Yellow Pad column on August 25, 2008, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson wrote that political borders are drawn on a map before they become spatial reality. Thus some may argue that the current map of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is but a model for the political territory that it purports to illustrate, without concrete projections of what those borders really stand for. This map, however, was a powerful instrument that helped the ARMM administration endorse its claim to a homeland. Although far from being independent from the sovereign state, the ARMM has been successful in challenging the role of the Philippine government in the region.

With political victory came the question of how far different Muslim groups in the ARMM could spread their influence over Mindanao, which they strongly believe to be their ancestral territory. It was only natural for the Philippine government to refuse to accede to more demands by the now nominally, and to some extent functionally, autonomous region. The Philippine government initially feared that if it had given in to these demands, it could mean the eventual secession of the ARMM. The government also feared that accession could be seen as an act of prejudice against other Mindanao residents such as the Christian settlers and the Indigenous Peoples, also called the Lumads. The Muslims, keen on exercising self-rule, have accepted the practical reality that they will have to share their ancestral domain with the Lumads, and even with the Christians.

And so another map is drawn.

Recently, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forged an agreement on the concession of a “distinct territory” of the Bangsamoro people. This territory includes the current ARMM, pockets of municipalities in Christian-dominated Lanao del Norte, and additional geographic areas in the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, and North Cotabato. Crucial to the agreement was the determination of who the Bangsamoro people are. It was then defined that the Bangsamoro people are “those who are natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao, including Palawan and the Sulu archipelago.” The Lumads and the Christians may choose not to join the new territory, also called the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), by voting against the proposal for an inclusive Bangsamoro region.

Contained in the Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF is a line that reads: “The negotiation and peaceful resolution of the conflict must involve consultations with the Bangsamoro people free of any imposition in order to provide chances of success and open new formulas that permanently respond to the aspiration of the Bangsamoro people for…self-determination.” If the non-Muslims were to be won over, would this usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the region? With more groups to participate in the political decision-making process of territorial autonomy, it could be hypothetically argued the BJE would not be conducive to cooperation.

When the Final Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was signed in 1996, the ARMM had immense potential to develop as a region in comparison with its neighbors. Sadly, in 1997, it registered a dismal economic performance with a regional GDP of zero percent. According to the Annual Poverty Incidence Survey of 1998, poverty incidence had an annual increase from 50 to 57 percent in the predominantly Muslim areas in the ARMM while per capita income remained the lowest not only in Mindanao but nationwide. After over a decade, little has changed. According to the Mindanao Economic Development Council, the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur have dropped out of the 2003 list of the poorest provinces in the country but they still pale in comparison to the growth in the non-ARMM provinces in Mindanao. The Christian areas, with the exception of the IP communities in the highlands, attracted more investors and business opportunities than the Muslim areas. The Muslims continue to resent the presence of Christian settlers who had grabbed their lands from them through the problematic land distribution programs of the national government. In brief, the economic disparity might be another factor that could aggravate historical tensions and existing competition between these groups if they were to exercise shared sovereignty over BJE.

In his book Making Mindanao (2000), Patricio Abinales wrote that “a prominent feature of postwar southern Mindanao was a fairly high degree of electoral participation.” This feature has lingered up to this day and has widely spread throughout Mindanao with broadened participation of marginalized sectors. However, fraud and controversy have hounded the electoral process in the past election, with interest groups pushing their own agenda. The Moros, sharing a common Islamic identity, have articulated their aspiration for self-determination; the Christians, having been integrated into the local economic and social settings, are disposed to accept competitive co-existence; and the Lumads, with only their claim to an ancestral domain title, continue to subsist at the margins. Since the ARMM is fraught with fierce electoral competition (which is tied to the achievement of power) and, with weak institutions, a rushed referendum may provide more room for rent seeking. Since mechanisms to constrain the use of power to one’s advantage were absent, it was impossible to enforce a check-and-balance system in the recent elections. Still, if these groups were to cast their vote on the expansion of political autonomy of BJE, then a new state of territorial dispute would likely arise. If, on the other hand, a consensus on the recognition of BJE were achieved through a referendum, it would still be a matter of time before the questions of leadership and identity became real issues.

A lot of people may disagree with me. They may wisely counter my arguments with the question: What is the best alternative? To set things straight, I am not against the MOA-AD. However, I am against the process of limited consultation of the stakeholders within the proposed territory or the absence of it. For example, the MOA-AD had contained the engagement of the Philippine Congress in the negotiation process to a minimum; this may prove to be problematic since members of Congress will be instrumental in implementing the MOA-AD. Also, I am against the idea of not drawing lessons from the ARMM experience, upon which many essential analyses can be made to help formulate better terms for the agreement. The MILF spokesperson, Atty. Musib Buat, says that it is their strategy to get the endorsement of the International Monitoring Team, which recently gave a statement that it would call off their endorsement if the MOA is not signed by the last day of August 2008. This is an excellent strategic framework, but again, both the MILF and the GRP camps lack an operational framework that can prevent the ARMM tragedy from recurring. Thus I am inclined to call BJE as ARMM II, just as Filipinos conveniently coined EDSA II.

In my view, there is no need for a new map to represent BJE, since it does not provide viable alternatives to the sustainable peace that the Bangsamoro people have long awaited. Recent developments in the negotiation between the Philippine government and the MILF are promising. But these talks should reinforce the common knowledge that an institution has already been established to ensure that development in Muslim Mindanao is achieved. Enhancing governance in the ARMM through its institutions, empowering all concerned groups, and securing peace and economic growth in the region should be the main concerns of both negotiating parties. When these goals are realized, then maybe it is time to ask the Christians and the Lumads to join a successful autonomous entity that is able to transcend boundaries not only of geography but also of identity.