Oppression, Self-Determination and Autonomy

I was invited to speak before students of Benguet State University in October 2010, along with esteemed proponents of autonomy, Nardz Andanan, Peter Dumaguing, and Atty. Nestor Atitiw. Nardz Andanan works in the National Economic Development Authority, a leading agency in the Regional Development Council, that government entity that has been spearheading what Dexter See has invariably referred to as “the renewed quest for autonomy.”

Peter Dumaguing now works at the Department of Agrararian Reform, but was with the Philippine Information Agency in Ifugao in 1989, and he claims to have figured significantly in campaigning for the Yes vote that Ifugao produced in that first autonomy plebisicite.

Atty. Nestor Atitiw, on the other hand, is a past counsel of “Cordillera bodies,” such as the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) and the Cordillera Bodong Administration (CBA). Currently, he is “head” of the CBA.

I know not what prompted the Social Sciences Department of BSU to include me in their list of speakers, and I was quite flattered that my thoughts on autonomy warrant the attention of the impressionable young minds of BSU students.

All the other speakers in the forum were invariably for autonomy, though for different reasons, and different rationalizations. I feel rather inadequate to parrot their positions and statements, and so I will not do so, for fear that I may have misunderstood these.

Nevertheless, the forum has drawn me again into the discussions on autonomy, and of late I have been unable to sleep well, troubled with some thoughts, old and new, on that subject.

The call for autonomy, then and now, unless current proponents will disagree, presumes at least one thing – that the Cordillera people need to exercise their right to self-determination. Self-determination is mentioned in the UN International Declaration of Civil and Political Rights, viz: “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.”

Corollarily, to call for autonomy or self-determination is saying that there is denial of that right: that, in reality and under the present dispensation, the Cordillera people are not able to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic and cultural development.” In blunter terms, it means that the Cordillera people are being oppressed, and to liberate themselves from oppression, they need to exercise their right to self-determination.

There are many among the proponents of autonomy now who will not agree with this presupposition. Indeed, few would admit to the denial of the right to self-determination, and fewer would admit to oppression by the present dispensation.

Many of the current proponents of autonomy however would allude to the struggles of the Cordillera people against the world Bank-funded Chico River Dam project, the struggle against the 400,000-hectare Cellophil Resources Corporation logging concession, even the struggle against the Apayao-Abulog River Dam project. The issues surrounding these projects became the fodder for support to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP_NPA) in the Cordilleras, with the rebels gaining support in many of our indigenous communities. In their analysis, the Left says that these projects were proof of “National Oppression,” providing the impetus for the call for autonomy.

The Cordillera Left was however rent by the breakaway of Conrado Balweg and Mailed Molina, who formed the CPLA, and who initially demanded the ultimate expression of self-determination – nationhood for the Cordilleras.

Upon the ignonimous exit of Ferdinand Marcos, who was responsible for the failed Chico Dam, Cellophil and the Apayao-Abulog projects, the government of Corazon Aquino wanted to listen to the demands of the Filipino people. The Cordillera people’s aspiration, then loudly represented by the Left in the “parliament of the streets” was for autonomy. The demand was granted in the 1987 Constitution, which mandated the creation of the Cordillera Autonomous Region. Seen in context, the Constitutional provision is a seeming admission to the reality of oppression of the Cordillera people. It was also an admission of the strength of the rebel movement in the Cordillera, and designed to dissipate it.

The call for autonomy was born in turbulent times, when the reality of displacement and annihilation of entire villages was the definitive description of oppression, the very antithesis to self-determination.

There are no such overriding manifestations of oppression at the moment. Correctly or wrongly, the San Roque Dam project in Benguet was completed with few whimpers, and the whimpers were those of the Left. Most of the present proponents of autonomy were silent. And they continue to merely allude to the historical expressions of oppression to support their “renewed quest for autonomy.” They cite no current oppressive policies or laws, no oppressive projects, or any other current reality that would prove that the Cordillera people’s right to self-determination is being denied or violated.

The Left continues to provide arguments asserting the reality of oppression, and the very offices of the current autonomy proponents are attacked as the perpetrators, but the Left has long maintained that the autonomy they seek is not possible under the present dispensation.

The rationale of autonomy is noble, and the concept does provide many avenues for the people of the Cordilleras to develop themselves. I for one believe that some form of self-determination is necessary for our people to realize their potentials. We might even fail miserably in the exercise of this right, but in the end we shall be better off realizing our folly.

But current proponents must convince the Cordillera people of the reality of oppression, and cite examples of how the current dispensation is instrumental in suppressing the people’s right to self-determination. They must in no uncertain terms prove that the present governmental system is at the least inadequate and problematic. They should point to current and actual examples of oppression and exploitation that autonomy will solve.

Only when the people understand the problem shall they appreciate the solution.

However, the RDC and other government offices that are pushing for autonomy are hardly expected to condemn the very government and system that they are part of. So instead they claim that the autonomous government would be able to ask for more funds when autonomy is ratified. in effect, they are saying that we should support autonomy so that we can become better beggars.

If they however continue on their current path, then the “renewed quest for autonomy” shall fail, and rightly so.

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