DEMOCRATIC APPROACH TO PURSUE THE BANGSAMORO PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION

Abhoud Syed M. Lingga
Chairman
Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly
Email: moroassembly at yahoo . com

The Bangsamoro, as people with distinct identity and common culture, and with long history of political independence in the same territory they presently occupy, continuously assert their right to freedom and independence as an expression of their right to self-determination. The liberation fronts, convinced that there is no possibility to regain independence under the Philippine nation state system, choose armed struggle as means to for liberation, while the Bangsamoro civil society prefer to follow the peaceful and democratic tract.

Right of Self-determination

The right of self-determination is the collective right of peoples to determine their own future free of any outside interference or coercion. It includes the right to determine their political status and to freely pursue their economic, social, spiritual and cultural development.

The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressly provide that "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".

In the exercise of that right, the peoples have wide latitude of choice. At one end, they can demand and pursue within the nation state more political power, active participation in the decision making and administration of government affairs, equitable redistribution of economic benefits, and appropriate ways of preserving and protecting their culture and way of life. On the other end, they have also the right to organize their own sovereign and independent government, or reclaim their lost freedom and independence.

The Bangsamoro People

Bangsamoro is the collective identity of the Islamized people in Mindanao, in the islands of Basilan and Palawan, and the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelago in the south of the Philippines. It consists of two words, bangsa and Moro. Bangsa is a Malay word the political connotation of which means nation, and Moro is the name given by the Spanish colonialists to the Muslim population of Mindanao similar with the name they call the Muslims of North Africa who for centuries ruled the Iberian peninsula. Combining the two words, Bangsamoro means Moro nation.

The Bangsamoro liberation fronts fighting for independence popularized the use of the term. Today Bangsamoro gains recognition as the national identity of the people who have common culture and long history of independence occupying for centuries a definite territory in Mindanao, the islands of Basilan and Palawan, and Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelago. Even the Republic of the Philippines, the country that presently colonizes the Bangsamoro homeland, recognizes Bangsamoro as national identity of these people. The Agreement on Peace Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, otherwise known as the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001, signed on June 22, 2001 in Tripoli, Libya, unambiguously recognizes that identity. Examples are these provisions of the agreement:

"Recognizing that peace negotiations between the GRP and the MILF is for the advancement of the general interest of the Bangsamoro people" (underline supplied)

"On the aspect of ancestral domain, the Parties, in order to address the humanitarian and economic needs of the Bangsamoro people and preserve their social and cultural heritage and inherent right over their ancestral domain, " (underline supplied)

"The observance of international humanitarian law and respect for internationally recognized human rights instruments and the protection of evacuees and displaced persons in the conduct of their relations reinforce the Bangsamoro people's fundamental right to determine their own future and political status." (underline supplied)

The Bangsamoro people consist of several ethno-linguistics groups, like the Iranun, Magindanaon, Maranao, Tao-Sug, Sama, Yakan, Jama Mapun, Ka'agan, Kalibugan, Sangil, Molbog, Palawani and Badjao. There are also among the Teduray, Manobo, Bla-an, Higaonon, Subanen, T'boli, and other indigenous people who identify themselves as Bangsamoro.

Bangsamoro Homeland

The traditional homeland of the Bangsamoro people consisted of the territories under the jurisdiction of their traditional governments. At the height of its power, the Sulu Sultanate exercised sovereignty over the present day provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Palawan, Basilan and the Malaysian state of Sabah (North Borneo). The territory of the Magindanaw Sultanate included Maguindanao province, the coastal areas of the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Sarangani, Lanao del Sur (municipalities of Kapatagan, Balabagan, Malabang and Sultan Gumander), Lanao del Norte (municipality of Sultan Naga Dimaporo), Davao del Sur and Davao Oriental, and the eastern part of Zamboanga del Sur. The Datu Dakula of Sibugay, who ruled the Sibugay autonomous region under the Magindanaw Sultanate, exercised jurisdiction over Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga City and the western part of Zamboanga del Sur. The Rajah of Buayan ruled North Cotabato, the upper valley of Maguindanao and the interior areas of Sultan Kudarat and South Cotabato and some parts of Bukidnon. The Pat a Pangampong ko Ranao (Confederation of the Four Lake- based Emirates) ruled the interior parts of Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and parts of Bukidnon, Agusan, and eastern and western Misamis provinces. The small sultanate of Kabuntalan separates the domains of Magindanaw and Buayan.

As the result of the colonial policy of the Philippine government to reduce the Bangsamoro into minority by encouraging Filipino settlers from the north to settle in their traditional homeland, the Bangsamoro are now confined in the provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, and some municipalities of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte, Lanao del Norte, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Sarangani, Davao Oriental and Palawan.

Although their territory was significantly reduced but the right of the Bangsamoro over their homeland remains. Their right over the territory that they call the Bangsamoro homeland is recognized by the Philippine government in the preamble of its agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which states that the GRP and the MILF are "Determined to establish a peaceful environment and normal condition of life in the Bangsamoro homeland" (underline supplied).

History of Independence

The historical experience of the Bangsamoro people in statehood and governance started as early as the middle of the 15th century when Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim established the Sulu Sultanate. This was followed by the establishment of the Magindanaw Sultanate in the early part of the 16th century by Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuwan. The Sultanate of Buayan and the Pat a Pangampong ko Ranao (Confederation of the Four Lake-based Emirates) and other political subdivisions were organized later.

By the time the Spanish colonialists arrived in the Philippines the Muslims of Mindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelago and the islands of Basilan and Palawan had already established their own states and governments with diplomatic and trade relations with other countries including China. Administrative and political system based on the realities of the time existed in those states. In fact it was the existence of the well- organized administrative and political system that the Bangsamoro people managed to survive the military campaign against them by Western colonial powers for several centuries and preserve their identity as a political and social organization.

For centuries the Spanish colonial government attempted to conquer the Muslim states to subjugate their political existence and to add the territory to the Spanish colonies in the Philippine Islands but history tells us that it never succeeded. The Bangsamoro states with their organized maritime forces and armies succeeded in defending the Bangsamoro territories thus preserving the continuity of their independence.

That is why it is being argued, base on the logic that you cannot sell something you do not possess, that the Bangsamoro territories are not part of what where ceded by Spain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1898 because Spain had never exercise sovereignty over these areas.

The Bangsamoro resistance against attempts to subjugate their independence continued even when US forces occupied some areas in Mindanao and Sulu. At this time the resistance of the Bangsamoro governments was not as fierce as during the Moro-Spanish wars but group- organized guerrilla attacks against American forces and installations reinforced what remained of the sultanates' military power. Even individual Bangsamoro showed defiance against American occupation of their homeland by attacking American forces in operations called prang sabil (martyrdom operation).

Opposition to Annexation

When the United States government promised to grant independence to the Philippine Islands, the Bangsamoro leaders registered their strong objection to be part of the Philippine republic. In the petition to the president of the United States dated June 9, 1921, the people of Sulu archipelago said that they would prefer being part of the United States rather than to be included in an independent Philippine nation.

In the Declaration of Rights and Purposes, the Bangsamoro leaders meeting in Zamboanga on February 1, 1924, proposed that the "Islands of Mindanao and Sulu, and the Island of Palawan be made an unorganized territory of the United States of America" in anticipation that in the event the US would decolonize its colonies and other non-self governing territories the Bangsamoro homeland would be granted separate independence. Had it happened, the Bangsamoro would have regained by now their independence under the UN declaration on decolonization. Their other proposal was that if independence had to be granted including the Bangsamoro territories, 50 years after Philippine independence a plebiscite be held in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan to decide by vote whether the territory would be incorporated in the government of the Islands of Luzon and Visayas, remain a territory of the United States, or become independent. The 50-year period ended in 1996, the same year the MNLF and the Philippine government signed the Final Agreement on the Implementation of the Tripoli Agreement. The leaders warned that if no provision of retention under the United States was made, they would declare an independent constitutional sultanate to be known as Moro Nation.

In Lanao, the leaders who were gathered in Dansalan (now Marawi City) on March 18, 1935 appealed to the United States government and the American people not to include Mindanao and Sulu in the grant of independence to the Filipinos.

Continuing Assertion for Independence

Even after their territories were made part of the Philippine republic in 1946, the Bangsamoro people continue to assert their right to independence. They consider the annexation of their homeland as illegal and immoral since it was done without their plebiscitary consent. Their assertions manifest in many forms.

The armed resistance of Kamlon, Jikiri and Tawan-Tawan were protests against the usurpation of their sovereign right as a people. Those who joined the Philippine government used the new political system they were in to pursue the vision of regaining independence. Congressman Ombra Amilbangsa filed House Bill No. 5682 during the fourth session of the Fourth Congress that sought the granting and recognition of the independence of Sulu. As expected, the bill found its way in the archive of Congress since there were few Muslim members of Congress. Then on May 1, 1968, the provincial governor of Cotabato, Datu Udtog Matalam, made a dramatic move. He issued the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) manifesto calling for the independence of Mindanao and Sulu to be known and referred to as the Republic of Mindanao and Sulu.

When it became evident that it would not be possible to regain independence within the framework of the Philippine nation state system, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was organized to wage an armed struggle to regain independence. When the MNLF accepted autonomy within the framework of Philippine sovereignty a faction of the MNLF separated and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to continue the armed struggle for independence. The MILF is still fighting the government forces. In 2000 Philippine government initiated war, thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

The clamor for independence is not only among the liberation fronts but also among other sectors of the Bangsamoro society. The 1,070,697 delegates to the First Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly (BPCA) held on December 3-5, 1996 in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao were unanimous in calling for reestablishment of the Bangsamoro state and government.

The hundreds of thousands of Bangsamoro who participated in the Rally for Peace and Justice held in Cotabato City and Davao City on October 23, 1999, in Marawi City on October 24, 1999 and in Isabela, Basilan on December 7, 1999 issued a manifesto stating, "we believe that the only just, viable and lasting solution to the problem of our turbulent relationship with the Philippine government is the restoration of our freedom, liberty and independence which were illegally and immorally usurped from us, and that we be given a chance to establish a government in accordance with our political culture, religious beliefs and social norms."

Bangsamoro leaders headed by Sultan Abdul Aziz Guiwan Mastura Kudarat IV of the Sultanate of Magindanaw meeting in Cotabato City on January 28, 2001 expressed their strong desire to regain the Bangsamoro independence. The Declaration of Intent and Manifestation of Direct Political Act they issued states:

"As sovereign individuals, we believe that the Bangsamoro people's political life, as matters stand, call for an OIC-sponsored or UN-supervised referendum in the interest of political justice to decide once and for all:

The Second Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly held on June 1-3, 2001 at the same place, this time attended by 2,627,345 delegates from all over the Bangsamoro homeland, including representatives of non-Muslim indigenous communities, unanimously declared that "the only just, meaningful, and permanent solution to the Mindanao Problem is the complete independence of the Bangsamoro people and the territories they now actually occupy from the Republic of the Philippines."

Democratic Approach

For the last three decades that right for self-determination is being pursued through armed struggle. The military suppression of that struggle by the Philippine government armed forces resulted to the off and on war that caused tens of thousands of death tolls, displacement of millions of people (hundreds of thousands are still in the neighboring Malaysian state of Sabah), and destruction of properties worth billions of dollars. In addition, military spending to wage the war have reached billions of dollars that would have been spent for basic infrastructures like farm to market roads, school buildings, hospitals, and other social services badly needed by the people.

The peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996 did not solve the problem. Four years after, the government launched an all-out war. Many were killed from both sides and thousands of families of the civilian population had to leave their homes. Until now, many of them are still in refugee camps.

Military solution will not put an end to the Bangsamoro struggle. The colonial government may succeed in suppressing one generation of fighters, but a new generation will succeed them.

It is in this backdrop that the Bangsamoro civil society proposes to the Philippine government and the Bangsamoro liberation fronts to explore the peaceful and democratic alternatives to put an end to the cycle of violence. Both sides, and some other sectors, claim to speak in behalf of the Bangsamoro people and most often the voices come in conflicting notes. It is just proper that they be asked what they want. The decision whether to be free and independent or not has to be made by the Bangsamoro people themselves.

What is needed for a peaceful resolution of the conflict are the political commitments of both the Philippine government and the liberation fronts to allow the holding of referendum after an agreed period of time for the Bangsamoro people to finally decide on whether they want independence, or federated or autonomous relationship with the Republic of the Philippines. Referendum is a universally accepted peaceful means of settling political conflicts and had been successfully tried in many countries.

The referendum shall be held in areas where the Bangsamoro people presently occupy. This includes the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, and the cities of Cotabato, Marawi and Isabela. There are also towns in the provinces of Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Sarangani, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay and Palawan that should be included, subject for discussion with the people in the areas. Territories that will vote for independence shall constitute the independent Bangsamoro state.

There is a need that the referendum shall be supervised by the United Nations in order that the result will be acceptable to all parties. Common sense dictates that a party to a conflict, like the Philippine government, cannot be credible to conduct or supervise such political exercise. The UN is the best body to oversee the referendum to ensure that whatever will be the result will be respected by all parties and implemented. If there is a need, the UN can organize its force to disarm those who will refuse to respect and implement the sovereign will of the Bangsamoro people. The best option that the Philippine government and the liberation fronts can take to resolve the war peacefully is to agree to a referendum. It will be an act of statesmanship on the part of the leadership of government. Statesmanship of leaders are not measured on how bloody and how long they can suppress people's right of self-determination but how they see through that they enjoy this fundamental human right. History is never been kind to leaders who do not hesitate to use military might to suppress people's aspiration to be free. On the part of the liberation fronts, it will be an opportunity to show to the whole world that they truly represent the Bangsamoro people and their interest.

Geneva, Switzerland

July 17, 2002