(Note: This week’s piece has been written by guest columnist Bryan Dennis G. Tiojanco.)
The recent peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is likely to be a major part of the legacy of President Benigno Aquino III. The agreement promises to end four decades of armed insurrection in the Muslim provinces of Mindanao, the archipelago’s southern island group, by granting greater local autonomy to the region. It is the product of a centuries-old political system that divides the nation along religious lines.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing religious sects, but that prohibition has never been rigorously followed. For example, article 36 of the country’s Family Code, which recognizes psychological incapacity as a ground for declaring a marriage invalid, was adopted from the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. The article was deemed necessary because eight out of ten Filipinos are Roman Catholic and, hewing to Catholic doctrine, the Philippines is the only country (aside from the Vatican City) that generally disallows divorce. Catholic morals are also enacted in the country’s laws about ownership of property, the working of contracts, even in its criminal code.
It is understandable why many of the roughly three million Muslims in Mindanao consider the Philippine legal system a gobyerno a-sarwang a tao: an alien government. They neither call themselves Filipinos, which for them refers to the country’s ninety million Christians, nor follow generally applicable Philippine laws. Instead, they identify themselves as Moros, a term comprising all of the region’s Islamic groups, and govern themselves in accordance with Islamic Law, which was enacted in a separate code in the 1970s to govern them.
This so-called class legislation reinforced views long held by Catholics and Muslims that they are different peoples. The disaffection of the Muslim minority is exactly what the constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State was supposed to prevent. Religious faith is of such overriding importance to many that it drives people to suffer, fight, and die for their beliefs. Government incitement of religious fervor, by either favoring or suppressing religious views, has historically marginalized political outsiders.
The Constitution permits the system of class legislation. Aiming to accommodate the Muslims, the Constitution endorses the creation of an autonomous region in what it calls “Muslim Mindanao.” The recent peace agreement formalizes this state of affairs by establishing in Muslim Mindanao a new autonomous political entity called the “Bangsamoro,” which literally means a nation (bangsa) of Muslims (moro).
While the country’s Constitution seems to contradict itself, one part was included to safeguard different forms of religious worship, the other to maintain political stability. Some observers are denouncing the peace agreement as a first step toward an independent Muslim state, outside Philippine sovereignty. But the country’s legal history teaches a different lesson, that this step is just the latest of many to keep that from happening.
Bryan Dennis G. Tiojanco is a graduate student of Yale Law School. He obtained his juris doctor degree (cum laude) from the College of Law of the University of the Philippines, where he teaches legal history.