Understanding Bangsamoro independence as a mode of self-determination

This is an abridged version of a paper presented by Abhoud Syed M. Lingga, Chairman of the Bangsamoro People’s Consultative Assembly, at a Peace Forum organized by the University of the Philippines in Davao City, Mindanao, on February 28, 2002.

Right of self-determination

The right of self-determination is the collective right of a people to determine their own future free of any outside interference or coercion. It encompasses the right to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social, spiritual and cultural development. In the exercise of that right, people can demand more political power within the nation-state, with active participation in decision-making and the administration of government affairs, equitable redistribution of economic benefits, and appropriate ways of preserving and protecting their culture and way of life. They have also the right to organize their own sovereign and independent state with the right to international recognition.

As a people, the Bangsamoro possess the right of self-determination. In fact, the Philippine government recognizes that right in the Agreement on Peace Between the Government 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. Paragraph B(1) of the agreement reads:

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.

Having a long history of independence, and possessing a distinct identity and culture, in the assertion of their right of self-determination the Bangsamoro people choose the option of regaining their independence. Both the liberation fronts and the civil society movement share the vision of re-emergence of the Bangsamoro state and government in their homeland.

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 Bangsamoro resistance continued even when US forces occupied some areas in Mindanao and Sulu. The resistance of the Bangsamoro governments was not as fierce as during the Moro-Spanish wars, but organized attacks against American forces reinforced what remained of the sultanates’ military power. Individual Bangsamoros defied American occupation of their homeland by attacking American forces in prang sabil (martyrdom-seeking operations).

Opposition to annexation

When the United States government promised to grant independence to the Philippine Islands, the Bangsamoro leaders registered their strong objection to being made part of the Philippine republic. In a petition to the president of the United States dated June 9, 1921, the people of Sulu archipelago said that they would prefer to be 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’, anticipating that if the US decolonized its colonies and other non-self-governing territories the Bangsamoro homeland would be granted separate independence. Had it happened, the Bangsamoros would have regained their independence by now under the UN declaration on decolonization. An alternative proposal was that, if independence had to be granted, then 50 years after Philippine independence a plebiscite be held in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan to decide by vote whether the territory would be incorporated into the government of the Islands of Luzon and Visayas, which remain a territory of the United States, or become independent.

The opposition against annexation continued. On March 18, 1935, the datus of Lanao met in Dansalan (now Marawi City) and 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

Even after their territories were made part of the Philippine nation-state in 1946, the Bangsamoro people continued to assert their right to independence. They consider the annexation of their homeland as illegal and immoral because it was done without their consent.

The armed resistance of Kamlon was the manifestation of protest in response to the usurpation of their sovereign right as a people. Then on May 1, 1968, Governor Datu Udtog Matalam of Cotabato issued the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) manifesto, calling for the independence of Mindanao and Sulu, to be known as the Republic of Mindanao and Sulu. When it became clear 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 fight for the liberation of the Bangsamoro homeland. 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 struggle for real independence.

Even Bangsamoro civil society, by peaceful and democratic means, has joined the campaign for independence. 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 re-establishment of the Bangsamoro state and government. 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.’

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 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 [whether]:
-To remain as an autonomous region
-To form a state of federated union [or]
-To become an independent state.

Bangsamoro, not Filipino

The feeling of having a distinct identity and culture reinforces the political consciousness of being separate from the Filipinos. That feeling of separateness is still strong, as we can read in placards and streamers during rallies and demonstrations saying, ‘We are not Filipinos, we are Bangsamoro’.

Even the Philippine government acknowledges our distinct identity. The Tripoli Agreement on Peace (2001) on several occasions refers to the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, the Sulu – Tawi-Tawi archipelago and the islands of Basilan and Palawan as Bangsamoro people, and that they occupy a definite territory referred to as the Bangsamoro homeland. This is a total departure from the usual reference to ‘Muslim Filipinos’ or ‘Muslims in the Philippines,’ and ‘Southern Philippines’ when referring to their place of domicile.

Democratic Approach

The fundamental issue in the Mindanao problem that has to be addressed is the continuing assertion of the Bangsamoro people of their right to independence. No doubt the problems of mass poverty, neglect and underdevelopment and other social inequities must be addressed, but it should be after the issue of the political status of the Bangsamoro people is settled. The decision whether to be free and independent or not has to be made by the Bangsamoro people themselves. This can be done by referendum, a universally accepted means of settling political conflicts, as the case of East Timor. It is also resorted to in determining a people’s will on a specific political issue, as when the Province of Quebec organized a referendum to decide on the issue of sovereignty, which would pave the way for the separation of the province from Canada.

The need for a referendum as a method of peaceful resolution of the Mindanao conflict is recognized by the Philippine government and the MILF. The Tripoli Agreement on Peace (2001) reads:

The negotiations 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 aspirations of the Bangsamoro people for freedom.

To address all issues, it is preferable to widen the range of choice to include questions on whether the Bangsamoro people want to be free and independent, or want a federated relationship with the Philippines, or a federated relationship with the United States (as proposed during the American occupation), or a federated relationship with any Muslim country in the region with whom they shared common cultural, religious, political and social ties in the past, or to maintain the status quo of an autonomous relationship. Inclusion or exclusion of other issues can be subject to discussion.

The referendum shall be held in areas where the Bangsamoro people presently live. This includes the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, and the cities of Cotabato and Marawi. 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 to discussion with the people in the areas. Territories that vote for independence shall constitute the separate independent Bangsamoro state.

To be credible, the referendum must be supervised by the UN. Common sense dictates that a party to a conflict should not conduct such an exercise. The UN is the best body to see that the result of the referendum is respected and implemented. If there is need, the UN can organize its force to disarm those who refuse to respect and implement the will of the Bangsamoro people.

Options for other peoples of Mindanao

Although the whole of Mindanao, Sulu – Tawi-Tawi archipelago, the islands of Basilan and Palawan are the traditional homeland of the Bangsamoro people, the demographic reality is now that they share the territories with Christian settler-communities and the indigenous people. In the spirit of justice and human brotherhood, they recognize the right of both communities to self-determination. If they decide to secede from the Philippines and establish their own governments, the delegates to the Second BPCA commit themselves to recognize and support any peaceful and democratic efforts to achieve that end.

Having three independent states in Mindanao é for the Bangsamoro, the indigenous people and the Christian settler-communities é may be better because each can address the specific and unique needs of its own citizenry. But being independent from each other need not prevent us from cooperating in areas of common concern and matters of mutual benefit, such as development of shared resources, and the fields of international relations, trade and regional security. If the other two communities prefer to remain part of the Philippines, it need not cause the alienation of the Bangsamoro people from them: agreement can be reached to have a special relationship.

An independent Bangsamoro state

An independent Bangsamoro state shall be founded on the basic principles of democracy, freedom, equality of all men and women, respect for religious and political beliefs, and adherence to universal human rights.

System of Government The system of government to be adopted shall be determined by the Bangsamoro people themselves. A provisional government shall see to the drafting of a constitution and its adoption. The constitution shall include a bill of human rights and freedom, and recognition of every region’s right of self-governance.

Rights of Citizens and Residents Residents of the territory at the time of independence shall be the citizens of the Bangsamoro state. They shall enjoy equal rights, privileges and obligations. They will have equal rights to suffrage, ownership of properties, practice of their religion and participation in public affairs. Those who prefer to remain citizens of the Philippines after independence can choose whether to remain as permanent resident alien or move to Philippine territory.

International Conventions and Agreements The Bangsamoro government shall assume the obligations and enjoy the rights arising out of international conventions to which the Philippines is a signatory, in accordance with the rules of international law. Multilateral and bilateral agreements signed by the Philippines that directly apply to the territories of the Bangsamoro state shall be honored.

Win-win option

A political commitment to allow the holding of a referendum under the supervision of the UN is a win-win option. It will resolve the Mindanao problem, since it will put to rest the issue of the political status of the Bangsamoro people. It will certainly redound to the good of the Filipinos and the Bangsamoro people because it will put an end to a war that causes the deaths of tens of thousands, displacement of millions from their homes, division of people and the drain of the economic resources of the Philippines. If the budget spent to wage the war in Mindanao is spent on infrastructures, education and other social services, there will be more farm-to-market roads, bridges, school buildings for our children, hospitals and health-centers, and more teachers to teach in the rural areas, and doctors and nurses to tend the sick.

We should remember that sovereignty and territorial boundaries are not so sacred that they cannot be re-configured. Historical events and contemporary realities tell us that sovereignty and territories change from time to time, whether by bloody wars or peaceful means. The experiences of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia remind us that territorial boundaries can change to respond to people’s political aspirations. Countries that respond to this aspiration without resorting to war develop tremendously, as in the case of the separation of Singapore from the federation of Malaysia, while those who continuously deny the people’s right of self-determination suffer economic stagnation and remain a nation divided.

Statesmanship is not measured by how ruthlessly leaders can suppress their people, but by how they see that they enjoy this right. History has never been kind to leaders who use their power to repress their people’s aspiration to be free.

If the one road to peace is by political division, we should tread that road bravely. It is better to live in peace as two nations than to live as one nation without peace.