Arroyo’s Trojan Horse

Brett M. Decker

Posted on August 7, 2008

How a MILF peace deal can help Gloria cling to power

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is pushing a curious agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed Islamic separatist group in Southeast Asia. Called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, the ostensible purpose is to give Philippine Muslims unprecedented autonomy and the right to live under sharia law in an expanded area of the archipelago’s southern islands. The deal is designed to appease Muslims who want to break away from the Philippine nation and unify with other Muslims in the region. The concordat would be dangerous if signed into law, but even its failure gives President Arroyo a vehicle to extend her political life.

On Monday, the Philippine Supreme Court temporarily put the brakes on the deal, which was scheduled to be signed in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. The Arroyo administration’s openness to relinquishing control of so much territory has stirred up massive protests. Under the agreement, 700 towns, many with sizable Christian populations, would be turned over to Islamic rule. Residents and local leaders were not consulted about the transition, a fact that does not sit well in a country whose population is 93% Christian. A Constitutional amendment would be necessary to free Muslim areas from national governance. Such a national campaign to empower Muslims faces an uphill battle.

There are at least four serious reasons why it should not succeed. First, by carving up provinces into separate Muslim and Christian enclaves, the deal surrenders any hope that Filipinos can find a way to live together and instead falls back on the myth that countrymen can live healthy “separate but equal” lives in an apartheid-like arrangement. Second, it increases rather than decreases the likelihood of territorial disputes because the agreement concedes to claims that the region constitutes a traditional Islamic homeland. This is likely to inflame Christians who will be kicked off of land where they have lived for decades when Muslims make claim to their legally-mandated “ancestral domain.”

Third, further removing Muslims from the rest of Philippine society and enabling them to shape an entirely separate culture encourage the separatist mentality that dreams of carving out a pan-Islamic state from other existing countries in the region such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the outside world, greater Islamic independence and less Philippine control over the Islamic regions invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong al Qaeda ties.

Without a doubt, major reforms are needed that affect the way Manila deals with its Muslim minority, which has long been neglected. However, a more worthwhile policy would be to improve the lives of isolated Muslims so that they could be assimilated into greater society, not further excluded from it. For example, reconfiguring the Senate to be elected regionally or on a provincial basis would give Muslims more of a stake in the central government.

As it stands, senators are elected on a nationwide basis, which means almost all of them come from the densely populated Manila capital region. The Muslim southern islands, which are sparsely populated, have no Senate representation and thus are largely cutoff from major social programs and infrastructure projects. In the Philippine system, pork is distributed directly by members of Congress who all get funds to appropriate in their bailiwicks as they see fit. Senators get much more money from the pork barrel than members of the House of Representatives, so having no senators means Muslims benefit from dramatically fewer spending projects than their Christian countrymen.

While amending the Constitution to introduce regional Senate representation is not on the president’s agenda, she is in favor of a much more drastic initiative to dump the U.S.-style system with a president and a bicameral legislature in favor of a unicameral parliament headed by a prime minister. Such a move opens the door to Ms. Arroyo staying in power past her constitutionally-limited single elected term, which expires in 2010. Several years ago, when reformers were seeking the president’s support for parliamentary change, she was offered the ceremonial position of President Head of State in return for her imprimatur, which she then conferred after initial indifference.

This prospect of retaining the presidency past 2010 provides the most plausible reason for the president to support the calling of a constitutional convention for an otherwise doomed initiative to expand Muslim autonomy. This is because Philippine law does not allow the agenda to be predetermined when a constitutional body is created. Once the convention delegates are seated, reforms across the political spectrum can be introduced for debate, including a shift to a parliamentary system. Rather than a half-baked attempt at brokering peace with Philippine Muslims, President Arroyo’s support for greater Islamic autonomy can thus be seen as a Trojan Horse to extend her stay in Malacanang Presidential Palace.

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