If federalism is the answer, what is the question?
On Dec. 15, the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance organized a forum on Federalism, Autonomy, and Mindanao Peace Process at Club Filipino. We gathered leaders of the Bangsamoro diaspora, a potent sector never consulted by government as a group, regarding the present call of the government to shift to federalism.
The keynote speaker, Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. stressed the need to break the hold of the central government (Imperial Manila) on powers, despite devolution and the Local Government Code.
The panel included DFA Undersecretary for International Economic Affairs Manuel Teehankee, Atty. Raul Lambino, and Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo. Usec Teehankee focused his discussion on the fiscal and economic benefits of federalism. Atty. Lambino, who has been organizing forums on federalism for the past four months, provided additional insights into the distribution of powers that will benefit the regions under federalism. Atty. Sinarimbo, who has been a part of the MILF negotiating panel for many years, detailed the powers needed for genuine autonomy to be implemented and how autonomy fits into a federalist system.
The panel were in agreement on a major point: under the present unitary system, the control of powers and resources — inspite of the Constitution and devolution — have alienated the Bangsamoro people and other indigenous cultural communities. They acknowledged the neglect and discrimination suffered by indigenous peoples.
Former Senate President Nene Pimentel proposed 12 federal states — five in Luzon (one for the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras), four in Visayas, and three in Mindanao (including the Bangsamoro State, which could have regions of autonomy).
The proponents also argued that the present ineffective and irresponsive system and the weakness of the rule of law have allowed political warlords, and corrupt politicians and dynasties to exist prosper.
Will federalism result in a more effective, equitable and responsive system? Most of the participants, after discussions with the panel, believed it would. In a quick survey held at the forum, 76% (48 out of 63 Muslim leaders) expressed their support for federalism.
Will federalism end the aspirations for independence of frustrated and angry armed groups in the South? Or, like the grant of autonomy by Congress, will it end up as a piece of legislation that will paper over differences? We need a well-designed home with a strong foundation to hold all our peoples together, not a house of cards. That political architecture can only be designed if our peoples are part of the drafting. As the forum participants opined, we need a Constitutional Convention.
I myself support the core arguments for federalism. However, I do believe that we need to have more engaged discussions — not just mass forums that do little to elicit serious thought about what it takes to move from the present political system to another. I echo the comments of many of the leaders present at the forum: majority of our people, from Tawi-Tawi to the Ilocos, who say they support federalism see it as a miraculous system that will immediately change our situation. We need more engagement. I repeat the query at the federalism forum of the UP School of Economics: if federalism is the answer, what is the question?