Monday, July 4, in Malacanang was for me like a reunion, as the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) and the Cordillera Bodong Administration (CBA) signed a memorandum of agreement with the government that brought to closure a peace process that began 25 years ago at Mt Data, when P-Noy’s mother Cory Aquino met with the late Father Conrado Balweg. I saw people I had not met for decades, reaching back to when I was at U.P. Baguio researching on “autonomy” for the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera.
While I was in Baguio through the 1980s and 90s, I thought about Mindanao mostly as a contrasting case to the mountains of northern Luzon – another instance of striving for autonomy that would perhaps yield insights into what was happening for the people of the Cordillera. The 1987 Constitution calls for two autonomous regions, in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera, covering “areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics….”
Whatever you think about the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao – those calling it a “failed experiment” have supported the law postponing the election so that officers-in-charge could be appointed until synchronized elections in May 2013 – the fact remains that there is an autonomous region down south while autonomy for the Cordillera has not been instituted.
There were two plebiscites for the ratification of Cordillera Autonomy Organic Acts, in 1990 and in 1998, but in each instance only one province voted in favor. The Supreme Court ruled that one province couldn’t be an autonomous region by itself; so all we have in Northern Luzon is the Cordillera Administrative Region, not an autonomous region like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
I could tell a long story about why the push for autonomy failed in the Cordillera, but the basic reason for failure is clear enough. What the people in the Cordillera want is autonomy for their village – to be left alone to manage their lives and resources as they see fit, in line with what their forefathers had been doing since time immemorial. There is very little identification with peoples beyond one’s home village, and there certainly is little identification “Cordillera-wide.” The term one often hears, “Igorot,” is only accepted by Ibaloys, Kankanaeys, and Bontoks; it was rejected by Ifugaos, Kalingas, and Tingguians in a survey conducted by the Cordillera Studies Center.
The contrast with Philippine Muslims, who do have an identity that goes beyond their locality, is obvious. It is true that Moros have their divisions – two major Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao, and several separate ethno-linguistic groups; but they do have Islam as a unifying factor, and that unifying factor is central to the historical formation of the Bangsamoro.
Since people in the Cordillera were focused on their own village, two laws – the Local Government Code of 1991 and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997 – provided sufficient autonomy. Because village was the level for autonomy, with nothing beyond it, then being able to elect mayors for their own towns with more powers under the Local Government Code, and the possibility of getting real control over village ancestral domains under the Indigenous People Rights Act, was enough.
The focus on the village is reflected in the MOA signed by the CPLA and the CBA. Fifty-three villages where the CPLA is active will get special development assistance. As Marcelina Bahatan, President of the CBA said, in her remarks at the July 4 signing ceremony, while the CBA is not giving up the aspiration for an autonomous region under the Philippine constitution, they are trying to focus on a working model of responsible village development.
Actually, the CBA’s original vision of an autonomous region structured as a “bodong” (traditionally a peace pact between two villages) was always somewhat quixotic. Historian William Henry Scott, in his acerbic way, likened it to structuring the European Union around the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact. In any case, advocacy for a third try at autonomy has been driven by government agencies like NEDA and elected officials in the Cordillera (most of whom were not in Malacanang at the MOA signing on Monday).
As consultations with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on the full implementation of the 1996 “Final Peace Agreement” and negotiations with the MILF on a new peace agreement go forward, in the Cordillera the CPLA is transforming itself from an armed group into a “potent force for socio-economic development.” This seems to be in line with the “distinctive historical and cultural heritage” of the Cordillera people. Any third attempt at autonomy must tap into this well of tradition rather than being merely another level of government with a possible additional funding stream.
Steven Rood was Professor of Political Science at U.P. Baguio from 1981 to 1999, where he also served as Research Head of the Cordillera Studies Center. Since 1999 he has been Philippine Country Representative of The Asia Foundation.
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