Sunday, September 25, 2011

[ G.R. No. 149848, November 25, 2004 ]

The 1987 Constitution mandates regional autonomy to give a bold and unequivocal answer to the cry for a meaningful, effective and forceful autonomy.[42] According to Commissioner Jose Nolledo, Chairman of the Committee which drafted the provisions, it “is an indictment against the status quo of a unitary system that, to my mind, has ineluctably tied the hands of progress in our country . . . our varying regional characteristics are factors to capitalize on to attain national strength through decentralization.”[43]

The idea behind the Constitutional provisions for autonomous regions is to allow the separate development of peoples with distinctive cultures and traditions.[44] These cultures, as a matter of right, must be allowed to flourish.[45]

Autonomy, as a national policy, recognizes the wholeness of the Philippine society in its ethnolinguistic, cultural, and even religious diversities. It strives to free Philippine society of the strain and wastage caused by the assimilationist approach.[46] Policies emanating from the legislature are invariably assimilationist in character despite channels being open for minority representation. As a result, democracy becomes an irony to the minority group.[47]

Several commissioners echoed the pervasive sentiment in the plenary sessions in their own inimitable way. Thus, Commissioner Blas Ople referred to the recognition that the Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras “do not belong to the dominant national community” as the justification for conferring on them a “measure of legal self-sufficiency, meaning self-government, so that they will flourish politically, economically and culturally,” with the hope that after achieving parity with the rest of the country they would “give up their own autonomous region in favor of joining the national mainstream.”[48] For his part, the Muslim delegate, Commissioner Ahmad Alonto, spoke of the diversity of cultures as the framework for nation-building.[49] Finally, excerpts of the poignant plea of Commissioner Ponciano Bennagen deserve to be quoted verbatim:

. . . They see regional autonomy as the answer to their centuries of struggle against oppression and exploitation. For so long, their names and identities have been debased. Their ancestral lands have been ransacked for their treasures, for their wealth. Their cultures have been defiled, their very lives threatened, and worse, extinguished, all in the name of national development; all in the name of public interest; all in the name of common good; all in the name of the right to property; all in the name of Regalian Doctrine; all in the name of national security. These phrases have meant nothing to our indigenous communities, except for the violation of their human rights.

. . .

Honorable Commissioners, we wish to impress upon you the gravity of the decision to be made by every single one of us in this Commission. We have the overwhelming support of the Bangsa Moro and the Cordillera Constitution. By this we mean meaningful and authentic regional autonomy. We propose that we have a separate Article on the autonomous regions for the Bangsa Moro and Cordillera people clearly spelled out in this Constitution, instead of prolonging the agony of their vigil and their struggle. This, too is a plea for national peace. Let us not pass the buck to the Congress to decide on this. Let us not wash our hands of our responsibility to attain national unity and peace and to settle this problem and rectify past injustices, once and for all.[50]

The need for regional autonomy is more pressing in the case of the Filipino Muslims and the Cordillera people who have been fighting for it. Their political struggle highlights their unique cultures and the unresponsiveness of the unitary system to their aspirations.[51] The Moros’ struggle for self-determination dates as far back as the Spanish conquest in the Philippines. Even at present, the struggle goes on.[52]

Perforce, regional autonomy is also a means towards solving existing serious peace and order problems and secessionist movements. Parenthetically, autonomy, decentralization and regionalization, in international law, have become politically acceptable answers to intractable problems of nationalism, separatism, ethnic conflict and threat of secession.[53]

However, the creation of autonomous regions does not signify the establishment of a sovereignty distinct from that of the Republic, as it can be installed only “within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”[54]

Regional autonomy is the degree of self-determination exercised by the local government unit vis-à-vis the central government.

In international law, the right to self-determination need not be understood as a right to political separation, but rather as a complex net of legal-political relations between a certain people and the state authorities. It ensures the right of peoples to the necessary level of autonomy that would guarantee the support of their own cultural identity, the establishment of priorities by the community’s internal decision-making processes and the management of collective matters by themselves.[55]

If self-determination is viewed as an end in itself reflecting a preference for homogeneous, independent nation-states, it is incapable of universal application without massive disruption. However, if self-determination is viewed as a means to an end—that end being a democratic, participatory political and economic system in which the rights of individuals and the identity of minority communities are protected—its continuing validity is more easily perceived.[56]

Regional autonomy refers to the granting of basic internal government powers to the people of a particular area or region with least control and supervision from the central government.[57]

The objective of the autonomy system is to permit determined groups, with a common tradition and shared social-cultural characteristics, to develop freely their ways of life and heritage, exercise their rights, and be in charge of their own business. This is achieved through the establishment of a special governance regime for certain member communities who choose their own authorities from within the community and exercise the jurisdictional authority legally accorded to them to decide internal community affairs.[58]

In the Philippine setting, regional autonomy implies the cultivation of more positive means for national integration. It would remove the wariness among the Muslims, increase their trust in the government and pave the way for the unhampered implementation of the development programs in the region.[59] Again, even a glimpse of the deliberations of the Constitutional Commission could lend a sense of the urgency and the inexorable appeal of true decentralization:

MR. OPLE. . . . We are writing a Constitution, of course, for generations to come, not only for the present but for our posterity. There is no harm in recognizing certain vital pragmatic needs for national peace and solidarity, and the writing of this Constitution just happens at a time when it is possible for this Commission to help the cause of peace and reconciliation in Mindanao and the Cordilleras, by taking advantage of a heaven-sent opportunity. . . . [60]

. . .

MR. ABUBAKAR. . . . So in order to foreclose and convince the rest of the of the Philippines that Mindanao autonomy will be granted to them as soon as possible, more or less, to dissuade these armed men from going outside while Mindanao will be under the control of the national government, let us establish an autonomous Mindanao within our effort and capacity to do so within the shortest possible time. This will be an answer to the Misuari clamor, not only for autonomy but for independence.[61]

. . .

MR. OPLE. . . . The reason for this abbreviation of the period for the consideration of the Congress of the organic acts and their passage is that we live in abnormal times. In the case of Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras, we know that we deal with questions of war and peace. These are momentous issues in which the territorial integrity and the solidarity of this country are being put at stake, in a manner of speaking.

We are writing a peace Constitution. We hope that the Article on Social Justice can contribute to a climate of peace so that any civil strife in the countryside can be more quickly and more justly resolved. We are providing for autonomous regions so that we give constitutional permanence to the just demands and grievances of our own fellow countrymen in the Cordilleras and in Mindanao. One hundred thousand lives were lost in that struggle in Mindanao, and to this day, the Cordilleras is being shaken by an armed struggle as well as a peaceful and militant struggle.

. . .

Rather than give opportunity to foreign bodies, no matter how sympathetic to the Philippines, to contribute to the settlement of this issue, I think the Constitutional Commission ought not to forego the opportunity to put the stamp of this Commission through definitive action on the settlement of the problems that have nagged us and our forefathers for so long.[62]

A necessary prerequisite of autonomy is decentralization.[63]

Decentralization is a decision by the central government authorizing its subordinates, whether geographically or functionally defined, to exercise authority in certain areas. It involves decision-making by subnational units. It is typically a delegated power, wherein a larger government chooses to delegate certain authority to more local governments. Federalism implies some measure of decentralization, but unitary systems may also decentralize. Decentralization differs intrinsically from federalism in that the sub-units that have been authorized to act (by delegation) do not possess any claim of right against the central government.[64]

Decentralization comes in two forms—deconcentration and devolution. Deconcentration is administrative in nature; it involves the transfer of functions or the delegation of authority and responsibility from the national office to the regional and local offices. This mode of decentralization is also referred to as administrative decentralization.[65]

Devolution, on the other hand, connotes political decentralization, or the transfer of powers, responsibilities, and resources for the performance of certain functions from the central government to local government units.[66] This is a more liberal form of decentralization since there is an actual transfer of powers and responsibilities.[67] It aims to grant greater autonomy to local government units in cognizance of their right to self-government, to make them self-reliant, and to improve their administrative and technical capabilities.[68]

This Court elucidated the concept of autonomy in Limbona v. Mangelin,[69] thus:

Autonomy is either decentralization of administration or decentralization of power. There is decentralization of administration when the central government delegates administrative powers to political subdivisions in order to broaden the base of government power and in the process to make local governments “more responsive and accountable,” and “ensure their fullest development as self-reliant communities and make them more effective partners in the pursuit of national development and social progress.” At the same time, it relieves the central government of the burden of managing local affairs and enables it to concentrate on national concerns. The President exercises “general supervision” over them, but only to “ensure that local affairs are administered according to law.” He has no control over their acts in the sense that he can substitute their judgments with his own.

Decentralization of power, on the other hand, involves an abdication of political power in the favor of local government units declared to be autonomous. In that case, the autonomous government is free to chart its own destiny and shape its future with minimum intervention from central authorities. According to a constitutional author, decentralization of power amounts to “self-immolation,” since in that event the autonomous government becomes accountable not to the central authorities but to its constituency.

In the case, the Court reviewed the expulsion of a member from the Sangguniang Pampook, Autonomous Region. It held that the Court may assume jurisdiction as the local government unit, organized before 1987, enjoys autonomy of the former category. It refused, though, to resolve whether the grant of autonomy to Muslim Mindanao under the 1987 Constitution involves, truly, an effort to decentralize power rather than mere administration.[70]

A year later, in Cordillera Broad Coalition v. Commission on Audit,[71] the Court, with the same composition, ruled without any dissent that the creation of autonomous regions contemplates the grant of political autonomy—an autonomy which is greater than the administrative autonomy granted to local government units. It held that “the constitutional guarantee of local autonomy in the Constitution (Art. X, Sec. 2) refers to administrative autonomy of local government units or, cast in more technical language, the decentralization of government authority…. On the other hand, the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras, which is peculiar to the 1987 Constitution, contemplates the grant of political autonomy and not just administrative autonomy to these regions.”[72]

And by regional autonomy, the framers intended it to mean “meaningful and authentic regional autonomy.”[73] As articulated by a Muslim author, substantial and meaningful autonomy is “the kind of local self-government which allows the people of the region or area the power to determine what is best for their growth and development without undue interference or dictation from the central government.”[74]

To this end, Section 16, Article X[75] limits the power of the President over autonomous regions.[76] In essence, the provision also curtails the power of Congress over autonomous regions.[77] Consequently, Congress will have to re-examine national laws and make sure that they reflect the Constitution’s adherence to local autonomy. And in case of conflicts, the underlying spirit which should guide its resolution is the Constitution’s desire for genuine local autonomy.[78]

The diminution of Congress’ powers over autonomous regions was confirmed in Ganzon v. Court of Appeals,[79] wherein this Court held that “the omission (of “as may be provided by law”) signifies nothing more than to underscore local governments’ autonomy from Congress and to break Congress’ ‘control’ over local government affairs.”

This is true to subjects over which autonomous regions have powers, as specified in Sections 18 and 20, Article X of the 1987 Constitution. Expressly not included therein are powers over certain areas. Worthy of note is that the area of public works is not excluded and neither is it reserved for the National Government. The key provisions read, thus:

SEC. 18. The Congress shall enact an organic act for each autonomous region with the assistance and participation of the regional consultative commission composed of representatives appointed by the President from a list of nominees from multisectoral bodies. The organic act shall define the basic structure of government for the region consisting of the executive department and legislative assembly, both of which shall be elective and representative of the constituent political units. The organic acts shall likewise provide for special courts with personal, family and property law jurisdiction consistent with the provisions of the Constitution and national laws.

The creation of the autonomous region shall be effective when approved by majority of the votes cast by the constituent units in a plebiscite called for the purpose, provided that only provinces, cities, and geographic areas voting favorably in such plebiscite shall be included in the autonomous region.

SEC. 20. Within its territorial jurisdiction and subject to the provisions of this Constitution and national laws, the organic act of autonomous regions shall provide for legislative powers over:


Administrative organization;

Creation of sources of revenues;

Ancestral domain and natural resources;

Personal, family and property relations;

Regional urban and rural planning development;

Economic, social, and tourism development;

Educational policies;

Preservation and development of the cultural heritage; and

Such other matters as may be authorized by law for the promotion of general welfare of the people of the region. (Emphasis supplied)

E.O. 426 officially devolved the powers and functions of the DPWH in ARMM to the Autonomous Regional Government (ARG). Sections 1 and 2 of E.O. 426 provide:

SECTION 1. Transfer of Control and Supervision. The offices of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) including their functions, powers and responsibilities, personnel, equipment, properties, budgets and liabilities are hereby placed under the control and supervision of the Autonomous Regional Government.

In particular, these offices are identified as the four (4) District Engineering Offices (DEO) in each of the four provinces respectively and the three (3) Area Equipment Services (AES) located in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Maguindanao (Municipality of Sultan Kudarat).

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