Party politics and constitutional change
by Soliman M Santos
Excerpts from a speech delivered at a Sri Lankan Parliamentarians Seminar, sponsored by
International Alert on 18 April 1997 at Hotel Danarra, Quezon City

‘Creating bi-partisan or multi-partisan support and understanding of peace negotiations at the parliamentary level is vital for achieving a permanent solution to conflict. More importantly, an end to conflict may even require constitutional change.

‘In the Philippines, the lack of bi-partisan support led to the watering down of the 1996 Peace Agreement. The Senate introduced amendments in the final agreement that diluted the powers and autonomy of the transitional structures. Executive Order 371 further watered down, and deviated from the Peace Agreement. This could have been avoided had there been an early bi-partisan approach.

‘The Ramos administration recognised the necessity of some kind of bi- or multi-partisan approach in forming its peace team. All government panels had advisers across parties from the Senate and the House of Representatives, in addition to a Cabinet Secretary. But panel advisers, especially from the oppositionist Senate, did not always act ‘according to the script’. If the
Philippine bi-partisan attempt has any lesson, it may be that token bi-partisanism will not do. There must be a genuine approach of building links, dialogue and confidence.

‘Separation of powers has led to dissonance in the Philippine peace process. Government negotiates not as one entity but as three separate centres of power. A legislated national peace policy would help the branches of government to act together. Unfortunately, no senator or congressional representative has been bold enough to adopt it.

‘Under a constitutional system, all laws are based on or consistent with the fundamental law which is the Constitution. Thus, we need to look for a constitutional policy on peace, or provisions that they may tip the balance in resolving judicial questions of constitutionality of certain peace agreements. Some constitutions have more, some have less. The 1987 Constitution does not
provide enough.

‘A University of the Philippines professor rues that while the 1987 Constitution provides the President with extraordinary powers ‘to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion,’ it has no provisions for the use of extraordinary peaceful means to meet armed threats to the State. There is no reference to peace negotiations as an instrument for resolving social and ethnic conflict. The chief executive must have peacemaking powers as a counterpart to
warmaking powers.

‘Such powers may need constitutional change. Of the five rebel groups, the two military rebel groups and now the MNLF accept the Philippine Constitution. The National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) do not. In the peace talks with the NDF, a major agenda is ‘political and constitutional reforms’.

‘The government has consistently conducted its peace negotiations ‘within the mandates of the Constitution.’ But this would, in the NDF’s view, ‘negate the inherent character and purpose of the peace negotiations.’ As a rebel group, it considers itself outside the purview of the Constitution. The MILF wants an Islamic system where religion, government, the economy and
socio-cultural life are integrated. Can there be space for such a system in Muslim areas when the Constitution declares that ‘the separation of Church and State shall be inviolable’?

‘There are possible solutions, like federalism and models of ‘one country, two systems.’ The preferred solution is still one which holds the nation-state together while creating spaces for the Bangsamoro aspirations of self-determination, social justice, economic well-being and preservation of cultural heritage.’

The peace and development formula

The promise of development, which the Ramos administration and the MNLF proclaimed was at the heart of their peace agreement, has different meanings for the different ethnic, social and political groups in Mindanao. The Ramos administration’s goal was to attract foreign investment into Mindanao, but in the 1980s, political instability was perceived as a deterrent to investors and hence an obstacle to economic growth. For the Ramos administration, peace was a prerequisite for development.

Abraham Iribani, chair of the MNLF Secretariat for the peace talks, says, ‘the government did not go into the agreement because it loves the Muslims, but because it needs peace in order to develop Mindanao’s resources’. Many MNLF leaders shared Ramos’s development goals, seeing Malaysia as the preferred model — its development was financed by foreign investment,
but with the state playing an important role and preferential policies to develop a Malay Muslim entrepreneurial class in an economy previously dominated by the Chinese community.

During the negotiations, development was a common interest that could bring the MNLF and the Ramos administration together while they thrashed out the constitutional issues that kept them apart. Their vision of development was shared by the Indonesian government, which was mediating the talks. Indonesia and the Philippines were already working with two other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Brunei and Malaysia — on a cross-border economic co-operation project called the East ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA). It aimed to develop trade, tourism and investment in Borneo, Mindanao, Palawan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Irian Jaya (West Papua).

For the parties to the talks, development meant ports and airports, power generation, plantations, tourism, mining and industrial development. This vision had considerable resonance among the urban middle class, both Muslim and Christian. It also found favour with foreign government aid departments. In the early 1990s, new office buildings and tourist resorts sprang up, bank branches opened, transport, communications and service industries boomed in urban enclaves such as Cagayan de Oro, General Santos and Davao City.

The Peace Agreement was intended to sustain this growth, but for the poor, of whatever ethnic group, it meant displacement from homes and sources of livelihood, homes bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and office blocks, farmland taken over for plantations or cleared for open-pit mining.

The Lumads, with little political clout or armed strength to protect their claims to the land, are particularly vulnerable to displacement by agribusiness, tree farming or mining. Like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the Philippines, many of them define their experience as ‘development aggression’. Many Lumads see the transitional structures set up by the peace agreement as vehicles for large projects run by outsiders. As Subanon leader Boy Anoy says, ‘The problem is that the SPCPD is for large-scale development projects. This means displacement for indigenous people’.

Investment in Mindanao increased after the Peace Agreement, although how much of it went outside urban areas is not clear. One local government planner had this criticism of the attempts to devise a coordinated plan for the Zone of Peace and Development: ‘[Central government] planners simply presented their own plans, drawn up without consulting people on the ground. [Their] plans were all to do with investments, but that is not what is needed. What is needed is poverty alleviation, employment and basic services’.

Many people in Mindanao agree. ‘People are looking for some sort of reconstruction, for basic needs to be met: housing, farm-to-market roads, water systems that were destroyed in the war,’ says Professor Jamail Kamlian.

To most Muslims, the absence of government services in their communities is a symptom of government neglect and discrimination, a cause and a consequence of the conflict. Development, understood as government services, is a symbol of inclusion and of equality with other citizens of the Philippines.

The 1997 Philippine Human Development Report attempts to indicate quality of life through a Human Development Index based on life expectancy, functional literacy and per capita income. It puts the five predominantly Muslim provinces among the six worst off out of 74 provinces in the Philippines. According to Education Department figures for 1994, the proportion of people in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) aged 15 years or more who had not completed even one year of schooling was 27.8 % compared to a national average of 3.7 %.

To rectify this would require a speeding up of bureaucracy and the creation of a secure environment in remote rural areas. In 1997 teachers in Sulu began to campaign for the province to leave the ARMM because their pay was always late. Their assumption was that ARMM bureaucrats were making temporary use of teachers’ salaries to earn money by making
short-term loans.

However, many Christians also interpret specific local development projects as symbols of inclusion or exclusion. Thus they may see initiatives that focus on Muslims, or predominantly Muslim areas, not as redress of persistent inequality, but as expressions of favouritism.

Similarly, civilians of all ethnic groups often interpret initiatives that focus on MNLF ex-combatants as excluding them from the alleged benefits of peace. Members of a women’s group in Jolo town were pleased that housing projects have been started for the MNLF fighters, but added, ‘there has been no other development, and nothing for civilians’. Thus development programmes, intended for confidence building between the parties to the conflict, have in effect reduced civilian confidence in those parties.

Since the peace agreement was signed, difficulties have been compounded by the East Asian currency crisis and the 1997-98 drought. The currency crisis hit in 1997 and led ultimately to political instability in Malaysia and upheaval in Indonesia, throwing the government’s development strategy into question. The direct effect on the Philippines was to devalue the currency, increasing the peso denomination of the foreign debt. This reduced the government budget available for
infrastructure projects. The drought caused hunger and disease, which affected at least a million people throughout Mindanao. Government relief operations came rather late — in the middle of the 1998 election campaign — and many people saw them as politically motivated.

Through the transitional structures for Phase I of the Peace Agreement, the government was offering the MNLF a partnership in making its development vision a reality. Given the competing priorities of people in the Zone of Peace and Development, the proclamation of that partnership was bound to arouse expectations that simply could not be met.

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