Are we ready for autonomy?

by Gary Pekas, July 2010

In the celebration by government offices and agencies of the establishment of the Cordillera Administrative Region on July 15, the battlecry that they adopted was to work for autonomy, provided that the national government will continue to support the idea.
What does support mean? It would seem that these Cordillera officials expect commitments of funding for information and education campaigns, as well as promises to provide billions if an autonomy act is ratified by the people in a plebiscite. My take on this is that the promise will be dangled in front of the Cordillera people as a bribe for their support of autonomy.
Executives will not admit it, but the man on the street sees the billions as potential opportunities for massive graft.
The question that begs to be answered is why autonomy is a prerequisite for billions of development funds, if the national government is sincerely supportive of the region.
Autonomy should happen only because the people of the region want it for themselves, and they agree on what form of autonomy is most applicable in their situation. If they do, then that desire for autonomy should not be because of promises, but a true expression of self-determination, even if it shall initially mean a lot of problems for the region.
Following is a reproduction of an earlier piece I wrote on the autonomy issue.

The call for regional autonomy in the Cordilleras became popular in the late 70s and early 80s, just as the Marcos dictatorship was in its fatal decline. Although popular, its proponents in general had a limited, if broad, appreciation of the concept, and there was no common understanding of what it should really mean.
Autonomy itself was seen as an expression self-determination, mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:
“All peoples have the rights of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
Although the UN covenant was written decades earlier, the concepts it espoused were by no means popular in the Philippines and in other countries. Perhaps it was a measure of the times that in fact the UN’s more liberal conventions, covenants and declarations (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) were ahead of their time. The proliferation of less-than-democratic regimes throughout the world actually suppressed the popularization of these concepts.
So it happened that in earlier years, it was the Left that championed these worldwide. The Philippines was no exception, so that it was not uncommon that anybody mouthing the mantras of self-determination, human rights and other liberal concepts were branded as communist.
Later on, self-determination and autonomy being part of UN declarations and conventions gained a measure of authority and authenticity. Because of this, the call for autonomy in particular and the broader national anti-dictatorship movement in general drew moral suasion from these covenants and declarations. For those who drew upon this wellspring of authority, it became natural to support the Cordillera call for autonomy. Among the anti-Marcos forces, it became fashionable to espouse it, no doubt aided by the exotic allure of indigenous peoples and their culture.
More and more people begun to espouse autonomy, (though there were those who wanted to distance themselves from the Left and called it simply Regionalization.), but there was limited progress on uniting on its definition in the context of the Cordillera and its peoples.
Though united in the call for autonomy, the Left itself was not undivided. The failure of the revolutionary forces in the Cordillera to arrive at a common position on autonomy would eventually lead to the breaking away of the Balweg-Molina camp, to form the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army. The CPLA would first espouse full independence from the Philippines, or nationhood for the Cordilleras, but would later capitulate and settle for supporting the lesser autonomy offered by the organic acts passed in Congress. As an organization, it would become fragmented, with some fragments integrated into the Armed Forces and others would continue to survive on the fringe. Even the mainstream left hold to the ideological position that true autonomy, and democracy, could only be realized with their victory and the establishment of a “national democratic government.”
In the days prior to the EDSA people power phenomenon, regional autonomy was being mouthed by people who mattered, caught up in the bandwagon. The reasons for supporting the call ranged from the romantic and whimsical to the ideological and noble; and from the mundane to the exotic.
When finally the US pulled the rug from under Marcos, spirited him away, and Cory Aquino came into power, it seemed that the idea can finally become reality. The Constitutional Commission in 1986 listened to the call for autonomy and the necessary constitutional provisions were written. Caught in the euphoria of freedom, of self-determining their “political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” the Filipino people ratified the Constitution.
What of the Cordillera people? Did they then sit down and agree on what regional autonomy should be? Government created the Cordillera Regional Consultative Commission (CRCC) precisely to consult with the people and build consensus, and assist Congress in drafting an organic act for autonomy reflective of the people’s will. It is a measure of their success that the first Organic Act was rejected in a plebiscite, overwhelmingly.
The second organic act was also rejected in 1998.
Some politicians who pushed for the ratification of autonomy did it in the hope of gaining positions in the new regional government; some people espoused it in the noble belief that it would benefit the Cordillera; and some supported it because it was still fashionable to do so. It would seem that the overwhelming rejection of autonomy points to a consensus among the people, a consensus of rejection. But the reasons for the rejection of the two organic acts are as manifold as the reasons for their espousal. The Left rejected the organic acts because the autonomy offered was not under their “national democratic government.” Political personalities did not espouse it because they saw little chance of gaining footholds in the new regional government, or they despaired that other politicians might gain stronger footholds. Other people would reject it because they sincerely believe that autonomy simply is not for the Cordillera. The reasons for rejecting autonomy ranged from the romantic and whimsical to the ideological and noble; and from the mundane to the exotic.
It was a failure of both the proponents and the detractors to unite their forces.
More than a decade has passed since the last rejection, and more than two decades since the constitutional provision mandating it to happen.
So are we closer to agreeing as to what autonomy should be in the context of the Cordillera? We are not. Are we closer to agreeing to reject it entirely so we could propose another expression of self-determination? We are not.
One reason being that the spirited discussion on autonomy, whether it be for or against, has lost its luster.
It is no longer fashionable.

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