By Benjamin R. Punongbayan
THE NEW autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), would have been inaugurated by the time this commentary gets into print. I am happy about this development, and I hope it will usher in a much more successful autonomous Muslim region than its predecessor had been. The entire country needs and, I am sure, wants it to be so.
To be sure, there are a lot of difficult problems and challenges that BARMM (Bangsamoro) will face and it will deal with all these practically entirely by itself. In a lunch meeting several days ago at the American Chamber of Commerce, the guest speaker, the well-known Amina Rasul-Bernardo, presented, among others, a list of these difficult challenges. Among these problems, I thought the most fundamental is the current extent of illiteracy in the region — about a third of the entire population cannot read and write. That, by itself, is a humongous restraining factor in trying to drive and achieve a reasonable rate and pace of economic, social, and political developments in the region over the near term.
The other great obstacle is the probable continuing occurrence of violence, especially of the kind induced by foreign elements who may likely try to exploit the current weakness and instability in the region. Of course, the national government will be the spearhead in dealing with this problem, but occurrences of violence will certainly disrupt or even set back development efforts in the region. Clearly, our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters will have their hands full. They need all the help the rest of us Filipinos can give them.
On the brighter side, Bangsamoro got a good break in getting its allocation of funds from the national government. Of course, any amount of funds it receives may still not be enough to meet the funding requirements of the activities Bangsamoro wants to do right away. But I thought Bangsamoro got a good deal, considering that the national government itself is very much wanting in financial resources and there are so many competing uses for the available funds.
Bangsamoro will keep all the local taxes it itself imposes, including some national taxes collected in its jurisdiction but now wholly ceded to the region (capital gains tax, donors tax, etc.).
From the national tax collections, the biggest item the region will receive from the national government is an annual block grant computed at 5% of all BIR and Customs collections after deducting all local government unit (LGU) allotments, determined based on actual amounts three years earlier. After 20 years, certain deductions will be made from the annual block grant. However, the total of these deductions would not be substantial. In addition, Bangsamoro will also keep 100% of all national taxes collected in its jurisdiction for the first 10 years, reduced to 75% thereafter. Income from exploitation of natural resources within the jurisdiction of the region accrues to it in full, except for income from fossil fuel and uranium, which goes to the national government.
To get an idea of the magnitude of the funds going to Bangsamoro from the national government, let us translate the foregoing provisions to estimated annual amounts for the first year of its operation while in transition. The block grant would amount to P77.3 billion for the first year and the BIR tax collections from the region based on the BIR collections budget for 2019 amount to P4.0 billion (not including the BIR collections budget for Basilan, which does not show a breakdown between Basilan City and the rest of the island); or a total of P81.3 billion for the first year. (Note that this total does not include any Customs collections budget for 2019 for the sub-ports located in Bangsamoro as these are not yet obtainable.) The overall effect of all the omissions mentioned above would not be significant and, had these been included, the result would further support the conclusion in this commentary with regard to the Bangsamoro funds coming from the national government.
To appreciate the significance of this estimated annual amount of P81.3 billion fund allocation, it is equivalent to P19.7 thousand per person in Bangsamoro. In comparison, the 2019 internal revenue allotments (IRA) budget for all LGUs in the country, including Bangsamoro’s predecessor, adjusted to include the share of LGUs in Customs collections, translates to P6.8 thousand per capita. Therefore, on a per capita basis, the allotment from national taxes of Bangsamoro is practically triple that of the LGUs in the rest of the country. (The 2019 IRA budget appears to still not include the share of LGUs in Customs collections, as was decided by the Supreme Court last year; the adjustment was made to make the numbers comparable. The population figures used in the foregoing calculations were based on the total population forecast for 2019, and was extrapolated to obtain the equivalent 2019 population forecast for Bangsamoro, including Cotabato City, based on the 2010 Census.)
On the basis of fund availability, therefore, Bangsamoro has a good start indeed.
I thought I would express a few observations regarding the government structure of BARMM. The overall structure is a parliamentary system, which fuses the executive function with the legislative. The legislative body, the Parliament, stands alone and does not have any other legislative chamber that works with it. The fusion of the executive and legislative functions is a good choice, as it may bring more effective results; legislation and execution can be done much more quickly as compared to that of the national government, where there is a separation of such powers. However, I feel that a one-chamber legislature fused with the executive may tend to lead to abuse of power. It may be more effective to add another legislative chamber, call it a senate, which participates in the approval of legislation and, therefore, provides a check on the main legislative body. This is usually the structure of most parliamentary systems around the world. There are a number of ways of how a second chamber in a parliamentary system participates in the legislation process. One of these may fit the cultural, social, and political settings of Bangsamoro.
There is another good feature of the Bangsamoro Parliament. Fifty percent of the members of Parliament are elected through political party proportional representation. This will strengthen the political parties in the region and avoid a political circus — something that the national government badly needs.
Part of the Bangsamoro government structure is the position of a ceremonial head of government that is given the title of Wali. The Wali is chosen by consensus by Parliament and has a regular term of six years. Not knowing any negative impression of the present Sultan of Sulu by the people of Bangsamoro, I thought the Sultan of Sulu would have been a good choice as Wali and which should have been provided in the BARMM organic law. The Sultan as Wali can provide political benefits in two ways — as a factor and symbol of unity among the Bangsamoro people and as an excellent posturing with regard to the Philippine claim of Sabah, assuming that there is a continuing desire to pursue the claim. I realize that there could be an obstacle to this scenario. There seems to be tension in Bangsamoro between its two major ethnic groups. I thought, though, that the group now in political power may create a similar position as that of the Sultan of Sulu and that these two persons can rotate as Wali in a way similar to the rotation of the King of Malaysia among the Malaysian Sultans.
It is now clear that there is a problem with the integration of the Sulu region into Bangsamoro. This problem could be both political and ethnic in nature and which should have been anticipated. Nevertheless, the solution that is being proposed is to restructure the entire Philippines into federalism to accommodate the Sulu region as a separate state. I thought this proposed solution is like using a sledgehammer to drive a small nail. I am not trivializing the issue; not at all. On the contrary, I believe it is a very serious one. What I mean is that such a solution is forcefully drawing all 108 million Filipinos into a minimally-analyzed adaptability of an untried structure to deal with a problem involving about 1.3 million of our brothers and sisters. It is a horrible way of solving a problem, no matter how serious the problem is.
We need a solution that is dedicated to the problem. That solution is right before us to take and is much easier to implement. All that is needed is to split the present Bangsamoro into two parts, into two mirror-image-like autonomous Muslim regions: the mainland part and the Sulu archipelago part. I realize that such a step requires a constitutional amendment and a referendum involving the entire Filipino nation. But so with the so-called federalism solution.
I assume that there is no problem between the two major ethnic groups with splitting Bangsamoro into two parts, because that is what it will be under the so-called federalism solution. Let us do it then. Let us amend the Constitution accordingly by ConAss and hold a referendum — but for that proposal only and for no additional other. Let us not overcomplicate things.
The Philippines is beset by too many serious problems. At least, we seem to be getting one fixed — Muslim Mindanao.
Let us all wish our brothers and sisters in Bangsamoro well in their difficult endeavors!
Benjamin R. Punongbayan is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo, one of the Philippines’ leading auditing firms.