By: Engr. Don Mustapha Arbison Loong

The MOA-AD is “dead”. This became the headline in newspapers when the Supreme Court (SC) declared the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as unconstitutional last October 14, 2008. The “death” of the MOA-AD had divided and polarized the country like never before in recent history. 

The debate on the MOA awakened dormant religious prejudice and discrimination between Muslims and Christians. While the people who were Anti-MOA celebrated, some Moros felt that they had lost something. Some other Moro sectors felt like an “anti-dote” to the Moro problem was deliberately withheld from them. Disillusioned MILF rebels renewed hostilities with the government forces. Suddenly, the dreaded “ilagas” emerge and revived past Muslim-Christian community conflicts. There is so much blissful celebration and emotional retaliation by each side respectively, yet only a few really know the issues involved that was “killed” by the Supreme Court decision.  

In a sense it was a pyrrhic victory for it gave the impression that a negotiated peace settlement is unfeasible, further pushing those in the jungles of Mindanao to pursue their armed struggle as the only way of, paradoxically, achieving peace.  

With the escalating conflict in Central Mindanao which is displacing close to half a million civilians, it is important to understand the implication of the Supreme Court decision. The ruling must be viewed not as a wall that bars dialogue but rather as guidance to a better and peaceful settlement.  

Injustice: root cause of the Mindanao problem 

In order to understand the issue on the MOA-AD, it is important to have a working background of the Mindanao problem. It will be biased, however, if it is based on the perspective of a Moro. Thus, a re-statement of points made by Archbishop Orlando Quevedo (Archbishop Quevedo), the former two-term President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and current Sec. Gen. of the Asian Bishops’ Conference, during the 27th General Assembly of the Bishops’ Businessmen’s Conference in Taguig, Metro Manila, on July 8, 2008 entitled, “Injustic: root cause of the Mindanao problem,” shall be more credible. 

He argued that the roots of the problem in Mindanao are due to three injustices, namely, against: (1) The Moro identity; (2) The Moro sovereignty; and, (3) The Moro integral development.  

The injustices against the Moro identity were the centuries of effort to “subjugate, assimilate and integrate the Bangsamoro without regard to their historical and cultural make-up, which is an injustice to the Bangsamoros’ religious, cultural and political identity.”  

As to the second, Archbishop Quevedo considered “a fundamental injustice,” the loss of sovereignty of the Moro which it defended for three centuries, only to be gradually lost to the US and the Philippine government. 

Lastly, with regard to the injustices against the Moro integral development,  “with the loss of political sovereignty came the loss of great chunks of Moro ancestral lands by legal enactments” of the government during those times. “The loss of land was compounded by government neglect of the Moro right to integral development. In all dimensions of human development, political, economic, educational, and cultural, the Moro population continues to lag far behind its Christian Filipino counterparts.”  

As the quest for justice is the spirit of the MOA, its basic element is the clamor for equality between the majority Christian citizens and the minority Muslims in the Philippines – equality in terms of integral development. Is there equality when the Bangsamoro people live with human development index (HDI) equal to the poorest countries in Africa, like Congro and Ethiopia? The HDI what the United Nations use to collectively measure standard of living, education, health, security, access and opportunity. Where is equality when people in ARMM, in general, has a life expectancy 20 years lower than the people in the rest of the country? Can there be equality when a US-AID study recently showed that the english comprehension of a significant number of teachers in ARMM are equal to a grade 4 pupil in Manila? Is there equality when a Tabang Mindanao study in 2006 showed that more than 90% of the people in Basilan, Sulu & Tawi-Tawi do not have access to potable drinking water?  

Some will dismiss this by putting all the blame on the Moros. Yet, who has the political and economic control in this country that can allocate resources and can have the political will to address major challenges? Sadly, the only consistent resource regularly sent to ARMM  are bombs and bullets. 

Economics Nobel price winner Amartya Sen, in his book, “Development as Freedom” expanded the definition of development. From simply a measure of income he included human capabilities. He calls this the “substantive human freedom.” In essence, he said that a people whose capabilities are not harnessed and developed are not free. In other words, a person whose mind, faculties, talents, gifts and capabilities are not developed and utilised are trapped in a poverty worst than the lack of money.  

SMART CEO Manny Pangilinan during a Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) anniversary said that the ARMM is beset by the worst poverty of all, the “Poverty of Capacity.” Why? Because it constrains people to the point of being unable to even help themselves. A people who is blindfolded with ignorance and shackled with poverty are no worse than prisoners in a cell. If we really belong to one Nation, under one flag, why do we let more than four million people, who all belong to the minority Muslim ethnic groups, live as prisoners of ignorance, poverty and neglect? 

These perspectives have become the generally acceptable premise for grievances and sentiments that must be addressed by the present Administration and the Filipino people in general. This search for redress is, therefore, the spirit of the MOA-AD.  

Why the Supreme Court declared the MOA-AD unconstitutional 

If the quest for a solution to the injustices is the spirit of the MOA-AD, then that answer was not barred after all by the Supreme Court. Instead, what had only been declared unconstitutional was the means in arriving at such end as founded on five main grounds, to wit:  

(1) That no consultation was made on an issue that affects significantly a large territory and population;  

(2) That the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) had provided a clear procedure on how ancestral land may be granted to indigenous peoples and the Executive Branch does not have the power to unilaterally supersede a procedure mandated by law;  

(3) That it would have been a binding international agreement that would compel the Philippines to support the right to self-determination of the Bangsamoro people;  

(4) That the Executive Branch cannot guarantee that the Constitution will conform with the MOA; and, 

(5) The concept of “Associative” relationship is a “transition point to independence” which threatens the territorial integrity of the Country. 

1. Violation on the peoples right to information

Section 7 Article III of the Philippine Constitution recognizes ”the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.” The Local Government Code of 1991 further “require all national agencies to conduct periodic consultations with appropriate local government units before any program is implemented in their respective jurisdictions.” Yet, in this matter that is definitely of public concern, no consultation nor public information was made. Thus, the Supreme Court declared that the government negotiators abused their discretion by not informing and consulting the people most affected by the proposed policies, as mandated by law. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court did not forbid the Executive branch from proposing peace solutions. It merely slammed the deceptive secrecy in the drafting of the peace agreement.  

An overview of the petitions will show that the primary relief sought was the exclusion of their territory in the proposed BJE. It is evident, therefore, that the greatest fear of the MOA-AD oppositionists is to be under a proposed Bangsamoro government, whose present condition in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is far from encouraging. Statistics say that it has the highest poverty incidence, the lowest access to all government services, and the poorest governance indicators.  

Hence, this challenge must first be addressed prior to any contemplated expansion. ARMM should first be made the model region in the country not necessarily in economic prosperity but even just in the transformation from “governance of the guns” to good governance. The success of “internal self determination” must first be proved with an improved bureaucratic and service delivery system in ARMM before other people would realistically be expected to say “yes” to a plebiscite to be part of it. 

2. The IPRA has its own procedure that must be followed

The MOA-AD had envisaged “ancestral domain” to be given by virtue of an executive agreement. The Supreme Court declared it as unlawful since it is contrary to the procedure laid out by the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act.  The law requires a process of delineation, presentation of proof, investigation and approval of by the National Council of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and due notice. 

In spite of this, Father Joaquin Bernas, S.J. believes that an executive agreement is no longer necessary to grant the Moros their Ancestral Land as the IPRA law may suffice.  

Flashing back to a hundred years ago, the Americans, after purchasing the Philippine Islands were actually “shocked” by the “small dots” of territory that Spain controlled in Mindanao.  However, the government declared all lands without Torrence titles issued by the Spaniards as public lands. With almost all Moro land not registered with the Spaniards against whom they had fought for more than three centuries and to whom they did not surrender their sovereignty, almost all Moro lands in Mindanao were declared public property. Now, what are left to the Moros are the small islands of the Sulu archipelago, the outskirts of the Lanao Lake, and the volatile plains of Maguindanao.  

It is true. This past historical injustices that were allowed by the laws then could not be corrected by another injustice to the present generations who now occupy the lands. However, there are still thousands of hectares that remain as public property that may be given to the Moros thru the issuance of Ancestral Land titles. These may still be granted to correct a historical wrong.  

The Subanon tribe, with a national indigenous peoples survey estimating their population at 90,000, is currently processing an application for 15,000 hectares of Ancestral Land title in Zamboanga Peninsula. If they can forward a claim, then why can’t the more than 4.3 million Muslims in the Philippines apply and reclaim some of the Ancestral land “legacies” that Moro ancestors had defended and fought for three centuries?  

It is a popular belief by the public that the MOA-AD will grant Ancestral Land titles even if it is already under private ownership. This is not true. What the MILF wants to take back are those public lands that remain unused, unutilized, or at least uninhabited. Also, Ancestral land titles awarded by the IPRA cover lands that are State-owned and do not include areas already owned by private individuals. In fact, according to the NCIP, of the 15,000 applied for by the Subanon tribe, only 9,000 may actually be awarded since the rest are already of private ownership. It is clear then that the law ensures that land already owned by its citizens are protected. This may also give an insight that the individual tribes of the Moro must apply to the IPRA to avoid the confusion since the term Bangsamoro is defined differently by the ARMM organic act compared with the proposed MOA. This may also hasten the delineation between the Ancestral domain of different tribes considered under the term Bangsamoro. 

The Supreme Court noted further that there is a significant difference though with Ancestral Domain as proposed in the MOA and Ancestral Land as defined in the IPRA. The former involves more control over the resources found in the land while the later is simply a land title as evidence of ownership. Nonetheless, since the present law already grants Ancestral Land titles, the Moro indigenous people must not wait for another decade to apply. By the time another peace agreement is signed, all areas may have either been converted to private land or granted as Ancestral land to other indigenous groups. 

Basically, the Supreme Court did not declare that the Moros are not entitled to their Ancestral Land. The Court simply stated that there is a procedure that must be followed based on the existing law.  

3. It may have been a binding International obligation

Justice Adolfo Azcuna warned that the MOA-AD “would have provided a basis for a suit in an international court ”since the Philippines made a unilateral declaration before representatives of the international community.” Moreover, since international law is not limited by precedence, the MILF GRP MOA may have become a landmark case that would have compelled the Philippines to enforce the agreement. 

However, even without the MOA, there is now an international customary law that supports the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples. Last September 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through General Assembly Resolution 61/295. The Philippine government was one of the 142 countries that signed the declaration. Article 3 of the declaration states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Furthermore Article 26 states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” 

Along this line, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the Philippines “adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land.” This makes the UN Declaration part of the laws of the Philippines. Furthermore, the doctrine of “pacta sunt servanda” in International law obliges the Philippines to “perform in good faith” such UN Declaration. This enjoins the country to continue searching for a remedy to the valid grievances of the Moros. Of course, democratic processes must be followed and proper consultations made, not only in the implementation, but to include the conceptualisation process. 

4. The Executive branch cannot guarantee the Constitution to conform with the MOA 

Justice Ruben Reyes said that the Executive Department went beyond its powers in unilaterally guaranteeing an amendment to the Constitution to conform with the MOA-AD. Such power, as Justice Antonio Carpio also contended, belongs to Congress and the People. On the other hand, Justice Minita Chico-Nazario deemed it within the powers of the Executive to offer solutions beyond what the present constitution allows when circumstances of ”internal conflict” justifies. Nonetheless, the majority of the SC Justices agreed that the Executive Department “gave a promise that it could not deliver.”  

The Supreme Court recognizes the power of amendment to the Constitution to reside with Congress and the people and not with the President. The Executive may recommend, but not guarantee, amendments. Thus, the peace process should change gear and direction and move towards the realization of the Federalism proposal. A charter change that will push for a federal-presidential government system with a regionalized senate will help the country decentralize political and economic power. Indirectly, this will move will give the Moro a more meaningful autonomy.  

Now is the time for a serious debate on this issue not only by the legislators, but by all stakeholders, especially the people. More importantly, the MNLF, MILF and other minority sectors who have issues should start preparing concrete proposals, conduct consultations and popularize their issues. At the end of the day, good ideas will just be thrown in the garbage bin if it does not get the acceptance of the leaders and general public.  

Only by long term comprehensive planning that engages all stakeholders can we truly arrive at a sustainable national roadmap. The case of the MOA may have been another product of disjointed planning where the left hand plans things that the right hand, and absurdly, even the “head”, does not know. Where else can you find a government that suddenly declares a MOA-AD as a solution then retracts a few weeks thereafter? Like a fickle, it suddenly reverses its statement. It announces that it will not sign it “in any form” and states that it will shift be changed to “community based consultation”, and, then, changes strategy yet again to a Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Rehabilitation (DDR) program. This clearly shows a lack of long term comprehensive agenda.  

Having three distinct plans with only a few weeks of intervals shows a total lack of deep understanding and political will to solve to address this national problem; but, the present administration should not totally be blamed. It is the system itself that makes political survival and post-administration security the number one priority of any president. 

5. The “Associative” relationship is a “transition to independence.”

The decision of the court stated “In international practice, the ‘associated state’ arrangement has usually been used as a transitional device of former colonies on their way to full independence.”   

As regards to the transition aspect, the “associated” relationship was used by the British government as a transitional phase for its former colonies, most of whom were members of the short lived West Indies Federation. As colonies of the British Crown, they were inevitably on the way towards independence due to the process of decolonization after World War II. The British government themselves had the political will to grant independence. Almost all countries held as colonies by Western and European countries have ever since been granted independence.  

In the case of the Philippines, political will for the dismemberment of the country is an unimaginable option. The GRP and MILF negotiators may not have intended the “associative” relationship as a jumping board for independence. In law, the nature of contracts are not only defined by what they are called but more importantly by the elements present. Moreover, the basic characteristics present in the “associative” system are also present in the Senate Joint Resolution No. 10 as endorsed by 16 senators this year. In fact, the much feared power of being able to demand independence in an “associative” BJE is also present in the Federal proposal. The Senate proposal gives a State the right to secede upon approval of two thirds of Congress voting separately. Also, the “associative” power of having State police while external defense rests with the “central government” is also present in the proposed Federal system. So is more power given with regard to control of natural resource and having foreign economic ties. In essence actually, the BJE is an empowered version of the Bangsamoro State proposed by the Senate. 

While the Supreme Court has “killed” the proposed MOA by the Executive Department, the “spirit” of the MOA is still proposed by the Legislative Branch in the Federal system of government proposal. It is just waiting for its time to come. The Supreme Court had declared that only the Legislature and the people are endowed with the power to change the Constitution. It is beyond the power of the Executive to transgress. But then again, if the Country will have a new Charter after the 2010 elections, then the Supreme Court will have a new frame of reference in declaring unconstitutionality. What may be unconstitutional today, may not necessarily be unconstitutional a few years from now.  

The spirit of the MOA-AD lives on 

In summary, the spirit of the MOA survived. The Court merely required consultation, the proper IPRA procedures and restrained the President from giving promises it cannot keep. It also identified the Legislative and the people as the ones with the real power to give what the spirit of the MOA seeks. Therefore, the peace process should focus on being able to convince the legislative branch of government and the people to co-own aspects of the MOA that can lawfully be incorporated during the Charter Change.  

The Supreme Court decision can be viewed “as a light that shows the right way” instead of being perceived as the “executioner” of the peace process. With this decision, where does the path to peace go? The practical and feasible way is the Federal system of government proposal. Much of the points raised in the MOA can be accommodated in the Federal concept. The aspect on Ancestral domain, may at this point be pushed through the IPRA law.  

The urgent and important issue that must be addressed by the peace process, the proposed federal government or the present Administration is the problem of education in ARMM. Since education is the greatest equalizer amidst poverty, an “intensive-care” approach should be made in rehabilitating the educational system of ARMM. The government must elevate the principle of “Parens Patriae” to apply to the region and take responsibility over the deteriorating quality of education in ARMM which is debilitating the next Moro generations. 

According to Al Jazeera news channel, the father of President Barrack Hussein Obama was born and raised in one of the poorest communities in Africa, with no access to electricity and television. Since his grandmother and most of his relatives in Kenya are Muslims, he faced a double edged prejudice – first, as an African-American and second being associated to Muslims. Yet in spite of these negative stereotypes and being part of the minority, it was simply quality education that empowered the son of a poor African-American to become the most influential man on earth today. More amazing is that, it can happen in one generation. The fact that Obama got elected as President of the US shows that there is hope for change in this world. The spirit of change, emanating from the most powerful country in the world, may hopefully also spark the momentum of change in our Country. 

The aborted MOA signing should be taken as a positive change in the long history of war the Philippines. A recognized revolutionary armed group is willing have a paradigm shift to seriously believe in a negotiated agreement instead of an armed struggle. Although the GRP negotiators may be scolded for making gross mistakes, the MILF should still be given credit for believing in the democratic process. The burden of being within the bounds of the laws rested on the government and not with the MILF. Thus, the peace process should continue. But a real peace process must involve the government as a whole and its people.  

The fear of having part of the country secede, should be met with sincere effort to address the root causes that divide the country. Fear and military force should not be the iron chain that keeps this country together. It should be the universal love by the Country to all its citizens no matter what religion, ethnicity, and geographic location. The Moro people must be given a chance to be equal with his fellow Filipinos in all aspects:  in practice and not just in law – in reality and not just in the ideal sense. 

At the end of the day, the spirit of the MOA-AD will continue to find a way to be realized. The MOA proposal may have been stopped on its tracks by the Supreme Court, but the grievances and injustices that drove it still exist. Hence, as long as the spirit of the MOA-AD, which Archbishop Quevedo divided into three injustices, lives on and the gross inequality between the minority and majority remains, then there will always be a clamor for change and justice.  

The interconnected problems of wars, poverty and illiteracy are merely symptoms of deeper causes such as the aforementioned injustices. Only by addressing these injustices can we stop the vicious cycle of conflict that hampers development. While there are those who advocate justice by democratic means, most of them simply fall on deaf ears or are silenced. Consequently, only those who advocate with guns are heard. Thereafter, the government misinterprets this as purely a security problem which can only be resolved by “an all out war.” However, a military solution is only palliative in nature and will never address the issues raised nor solve the problem. If only the hundreds of billions of pesos spent on war is used to address the injustice to the Moro integral development, perhaps peace would be more within reach. 

Change and justice will never be achieved by having more blood spilled on the fertile lands of Mindanao, but by the ink of the pen on paper. In fact, Muslims are taught that “the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.” Undeniably, as the beginning of the injustice started with unjust laws and executive policies a century ago, justice can only be institutionalized by incorporating affirmative action into our Constitution, statutes and jurisprudence.  

More than quarter of a million people have already died due to the Mindanao conflict in the last five decades. How many more people must die by the bullets and bombs for a cause that only a pen can resolve? 


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[Engr. Don Mustapha Arbison Loong is the President of WMSU Law Students’ Association, the former Provincial Administrator of Sulu, a US State Dept. International Visitor Alumni, a British Chevening Fellow to Bradford University, UK, an AIM Bridging Leadership Fellow, a former delegate to the South East Asian Conflict Studies Network in Thailand, an Outwardbound Global Leader to the peak Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa, and the President of the Movement for Economic Development in Sulu Foundation, Inc. He is also one of the founding co-convenors of the Young Moro Professionals Network]