Robert Maulana Marohombsar Alonto was a member of the peace panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that negotiated the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro signed in 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014. He was also a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that drafted the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that the Aquino administration did not pass. He delivered this speech at the Kusog Mindanaw 2019 Conference in Davao City on July 11, 2019. 


After the 16th Congress failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that was drafted by the first Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) based on the MILF-GRP Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) of March 2014, there was an air of uncertainty, or to put it more pointedly, pervasive consternation, that took hold not only of the MILF Peace Negotiating Panel but the entire rank and file of the MILF as well as the Bangsamoro masses.


In retrospect, all hopes were then pinned on the passage of the BBL, which was the product of the 17-year peace negotiations between the MILF and the GRP - 3 years of which were held inside the country and 14 years of which were conducted abroad, specifically in Malaysia. The failure of the 16th Congress, thus, to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, as I was saying, brought us on the brink of hopelessness.


However, it was timely Congress closed when Presidential elections were about to be held in May 2016. And one of the Presidential candidates, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte, took up federalism as one of his flagship platforms. He contended that federalism shall be the means to resolve the historical and current injustices heaped on the Bangsamoro people. Indeed, the words of Mayor Duterte resonated with us. For these historical injustices were borne by the Moro people during and after their incorporation into the Philippine state without so much as a democratic plebiscitary process to acquire Moro consent and therefore legitimize said incorporation.


To digress a little bit, we, in the MILF, at that time maintained and strictly enforced the policy that was issued by the late MILF Chairman and Amirul Mujahideen, Sheikh Salamat Hashim (r) and was hitherto continued by his successor, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, now the Chief Minister of the BARMM, that prohibited the MILF as a revolutionary organization from participating in Philippine electoral politics. This prohibition, nevertheless, did not preclude individual members or the mass supporters of the Front from exercising their right to vote for their candidate relatives or just any candidate of their choice provided they did not carry the name of the MILF.


Suffice to say, Mayor Duterte’s federalism platform appealed to many of us, especially to the young Moro intellectuals in Ranao and even to some Moro politicians who were frustrated by the turn of events in the 16th Congress. Out of utter frustration, they have arrived at the conclusion based on experience from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement to the present, that under the Philippine unitary state system, Congress, invariably invoking constitutional compliance will never allow full political expression of the right of the Moro for internal self-determination. That is, unless of course a new constitution that ushers in a new system, such as federalism, will accommodate said full expression of Moro right to internal self- determination not in terms of separatism or external self-determination - which had been shelved by the peace negotiations - but through a federal association with the rest of the country and the Manila government.


In other words, we found in the federalist proposition of Mayor Duterte the practical wisdom - call it realpolitik – that allowed us an alternative, the way out of the precarious impasse then created by the 16th Congress that was impeding the implementation of the peace agreement and, as a result thereof, had upped the ante on the risk of unwanted war spawned by frustration and even desperation on the ground. Such desperation, needless to say, is the stuff that violent extremism is made of.


Hence, when Mayor Duterte finally threw his hat into the Presidential ring, we supported him because not only was he, or is he, the only Presidential candidate with a Moro blood from Mindanao but because we felt obligated and committed to rally behind his federalist platform and constitutional change for the purpose of the aforecited.


On May 19, 2016, about a week after he was elected President, a select group from the MILF Central Committee headed by Al Haj Murad, held a close-door meeting with then President-elect Rodrigo Roa Duterte at Elena Hotel here in Davao City. I was with the group. This was the first time that the MILF leadership officially had a post-election meeting with the President and this was facilitated per instruction of Mayor Duterte by my late cousin, Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, former MNLF Vice-Chairman, himself a federalist, an advocate of the BBL, and a staunch supporter of Mayor Duterte. Briefly, President-elect Mayor Duterte laid bare to the group his proposal to change the 1987 constitution and reconfigure the country’s state system from unitary to federalism. A new constitution, he told us, will accommodate the unadulterated BBL, which, he further suggested, can be the template for the basic law of the other component states of the envisaged Federal Republic of the Philippines. Moreover, he also proposed that he would like the MILF and MNLF to come together, and with his backing and full support campaign for federalism throughout the country. With no change in the unitary constitution, he emphatically pointed out that the BBL even if he were the sitting President will not escape alteration and revision by the new 17th Congress to make it conform to the 1987 unitary state constitution. Thus, he averred, there is imperativeness in changing the constitution that would replace the unitary state, which is the institutional legacy of foreign colonialism, to a federal state to correct historical and current injustices in Moroland through Moro home rule and put closure to the never-ending cycle of violent conflict and war in Mindanao while, at the same time, granting the same right to home rule to the other peoples of this country. In a nutshell, on a larger picture, it was a ‘happy for all’ proposition.


The President-elect’s proposal was not only sound - and visionary to be sure - but was the most practical political formula accompanied by a roadmap in light of the ill-fated BBL in the 16th Congress, not to mention the earlier MOA-AD debacle in 2008. It offered closure to the Bangsamoro Question that remains a ‘question’ under all Philippine Presidents from Marcos to the present because of the perennial challenge of ‘constitutionality’ in the context of the unitary state. 


Unfortunately, though, what he proposed to us on that particular night of Ramadhan 2016 did not push through. Voices from within the Moro movement took a contrary viewpoint and that was to prioritize the passage of the BBL before federalism. Consequently, the BBL went through the same process as it did in the 16th Congress and as a result, what we have is the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) wherein provisions of strategic import that have clearly deviated from the signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) had been installed just to pass the litmus test of constitutionality. Before I conclude, let me just say a few words on the BBL that was conceived within the framework of the CAB. The architecture of the BBL was designed as a federacy. Why? Because it has to be noted that the Bangsamoro is sui generis on account of its history, identity, culture, religion and unrelenting struggle for self-determination that make it distinct from the rest of the country. Very briefly, federacy, according to its standard definition, is a political relationship between a larger state entity and a smaller political entity in which the latter exercises full self-rule within the larger state. Federalism refers to the whole state being divided into component sub-states, or as a result of the political union of erstwhile independent or semi-independent states. But in federacy this relationship is confined to the mother state and the smaller political entity in which the former concedes some of its sovereignty to the smaller entity to allow it to exercise internal sovereignty, call it full political autonomy, in the form of home rule within its territory. Stefan Wolff, the renowned German political scientist, specialist in international security and prevention of ethnic conflicts, posits that federacy or autonomy ‘normally enjoys similar powers and constitutional protection as federal entities, but is distinct in that it does not necessitate territorial subdivisions across the entire state territory. Autonomy/federacy is normally otherwise a feature of unitary states.” (cf. also Weller and Woff 2005, Wolff 2010) This political arrangement between the mother state and the smaller political entity is called asymmetrical relationship because such a relationship does not apply to the other regions of the larger state. Federacy, thus, conforms with the shared sovereignty paradigm, which is often featured in conflict resolutions worldwide, though not on a uniform basis, as a remedy to sovereignty-based conflicts.


The FAB followed this paradigm of shared sovereignty approach to a sovereignty-based conflict in a unitary state setting. A sovereignty-based conflict which is what the historical injustice is all about and therefore what the Bangsamoro Question is all about.


Yet, while other countries have applied the shared sovereignty formula to resolve their sovereignty-based conflicts, like Finland vis-á-vis Aland or Antigua vis-á-vis Barbuda, to name but a few, Philippine unitary state politicians, consistently invoking the unitary constitution as if it were the immutable Bible, cannot accept such a political solution even if it is in the form of a signed political peace agreement. This is what happened to the MOA-AD, the FAB-compliant BBL and to all the previous proposals-cum-agreements for Moro self-rule that were forged on the negotiating table. We are faced with the reality, thus, that the present Philippine unitary state cannot and will not grant genuine political autonomy or federacy and shared internal sovereignty to the Bangsamoro. The most that it can concede is an administrative region with pseudo-territorial autonomy under the control or supervision of the central government.


In conclusion, therefore, given the urgency to upgrade the quality as well as flexibility of the BOL to meet the emerging problems of Moro ethnicities, and to resolve this conflict in Mindanao and Sulu in earnest, pre-empt the proliferous growth of violent extremism, as well as breakup the monopoly and concentration of powers in the hands of the central government and share power to the people, the only option is to federalize the country by means of constitutional change. With the present implementation of the BOL, opening the constitution for amendments will be a strategic opportunity for the Bangsamoro to strengthen what they have gained in the peace negotiations and ensure that justice, genuine peace and development can be achieved in Mindanao. Though federalism has been removed recently from the President’s agenda, or so it seems; and, to be frank, is not the utopian panacea to all the ills of the country, we believe it is the right start and the right track for moving this country forward to discernable and enduring peace, social, political and economic justice, development and human security through a democratic political union and parity of esteem among its diverse nations you call regions.