IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Federalism and Security Arrangement in Armed Conflict Areas

US Army (USA) Soldiers fire illumination flares from a 120mm mortar cannon on a mortar carrier Stryker in Mosul, Iraq (IRQ) during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The USA Soldiers are from Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron (HHS), 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment (1/17th Infantry), 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), Ft. Wainwright, Alaska (AK).

Written by Jennifer Santiago Oreta.

Federalism is being proposed as the alternative to the prevailing overly-centralized power structure of the Philippines government. Especially for the Visayas and Mindanao provinces, the lure of federalism has gripped the areas since the time of President Ramos.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the promise of federalism provided President Duterte with broad-base support especially during the campaign period.

Needless to say, federalism has indeed helped to solve conflict and division in the countries enumerated.  But to rephrase a common adage, what is effective for Juan may not be effective for Pedro.

The main argument of federalism’s proponents is that it will make government programs and services more relevant and bring them closer to the people. By strengthening the powers of the local government, it will ultimately translate to positive outcome benefitting the local populace.  This argument, however, misses the reality that political clans continue to dominate local government units (LGU), so strengthening the local government will also increase the power-base of these political clans – unless an anti-political dynasties bill is passed into law, a million-dollar question given the present composition of the Senate and Congress.

The reality of political clans finds relevance on the issue of security – in the provinces, whosoever controls the political power also controls the security institutions.  This is the elephant in the room that commentators seem to gloss over – will federalism end the decades-long conflicts in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)?

A cursory look at the experience of other countries would show that federalism has been used to address conflicts, some examples of which are India, Canada and Spain.   Canada and Spain adopted federalism to address the sentiments of their French-speaking province and the Basque and Catalan regions, respectively. Other countries used the federalism-card to address issues relative to the large number of ethno-linguistic groups – Switzerland, Belgium and India fall under this category.

Needless to say, federalism has indeed helped to solve conflict and division in the countries enumerated.  But to rephrase a common adage, what is effective for Juan may not be effective for Pedro.

The current armed conflict in the ARMM region is complex and layered.  While the government has been engaging the armed groups through peace talks (the Moro National Liberation Front/ MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front/ MILF), such efforts only address the ‘vertical’ conflict between the state and non-state groups. Despite the peace agreements, the horizontal conflicts of clan feuds (or ‘Rido’ in the local dialect) will not be automatically settled.

Add to this configuration is the presence of terror organizations – the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Maute group, the Rajah Sulaiman Group and the Black Flag Movement to name just some of the local terrorist organizations that operate in the area.  While local in character, the global network and reach of these groups necessitate international sharing of intelligence information as well as closer cooperation in law enforcement.

Complicating this situation further is the fact that the ARMM region also sits on a large area of ancestral domain of indigenous peoples (IP).  Some indigenous leaders claim that the IPRA law (Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act) is the “peace settlement” of the government with the IPs and therefore must be treated on equal footing as that of the peace agreements with the MILF and MNLF.

In some provinces in the ARMM, the communist’ New People’s Army (NPA) also operates. Although the MNLF and the MILF desire more autonomy for the region, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-NPA’s ultimate goal is to take over the Philippine government – alliances therefore among these groups remain only on the tactical level.

That, in a nutshell, is the conflict in the ARMM. So we go back to the basic question – will a shift to a federal system of government address the armed conflict besetting the region? If so, what is the appropriate security arrangement that must be adopted?

This article borrows part of the research findings of the group Security Reform Initiative (SRI) – a research firm that is currently doing research on the same topic.

Based on data gathered, most of the officials interviewed – police, military, and LGU officials – declare that within the framework of a federal set-up, a constabulary force should be organized.   A constabulary force is  a hybrid police-military unit (i.e. they are soldiers trained to do police work).  This hybrid military-police will be national in character and is meant to deal with terror groups and other groups trained in guerrilla and/or hybrid warfare.  A separate local police force will handle criminality, peace and order, and investigation work, while the armed forces should focus on defending the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the state.

There are examples of this ‘constabulary’ idea from other federal countries. India, Malaysia and Pakistan have national police forces that handle larger scale problems of peace and order and terrorism; the US has a national guard to supplement the efforts of local police in cases of widespread unrest and disaster management; and France has the gendarmerie, a military group in-charge of policing work to ensure the public safety of the national population.

While the proposed constabulary force is national in character and organization, it is also recommended that the local chief executive (the Governors and Mayors) will have shared supervision over the respective constabulary unit operating within his/her political jurisdiction. Moreover, similar to the current set-up, the police force will be local in scope but it will have support units that are national in character.  A strong caveat was added – the merit-based promotion system must be adopted instead of the current system that allows the local Mayor/ Governor to appoint the local chief of police.

These are all raw ideas that need to be processed and assessed.  Indeed, the proposed shift to federalism excites some but worries others. More studies must be done to break apart the nuances of governance in a federal system.  As the saying goes, the devil is always in the details.

Jennifer Santiago Oreta is a faculty member of the Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University, and the Chairman of the Board of the Security Reform Initiative (SRI). This article was first published on BusinessWorld  and can be found hereImage credit: CC by ExpertInfantry/Flickr.