The process towards setting up the Cordillera Autonomous Region defined in the Constitution is for Congress, with the help of a Cordillera Regional Consultative Commission, to draft an Organic Act to establish the autonomous region.  The Organic Act is to be submitted to the people for ratification in a plebiscite called for the purpose.

In 1990, RA 6766, the Organic Act to create the Cordillera Autonomous Region was submitted to the people in a plebiscite and was resoundingly rejected by the voting population except for Ifugao.  Some well-meaning professionals who were involved in the original draft complained that Congress had considerable watered down their proposals, and saw the futility of their efforts.

Again in 1997, a new Organic Act, RA 8438 was the subject of a plebiscite, and again it was resoundingly rejected, except for Apayao.  A third attempt was made with HB 4349 which was submitted to the last 16th Congress but was not passed into law.

Notwithstanding that it was the CPA that had lobbied for the inclusion of the provision on Cordillera autonomy in the Constitution, the militant mass movement campaigned for the rejection of these Organic Acts when they were brought before the electorate in a plebiscite.  The CPA’s rejection was because this was not the regional autonomy as a form of self-determination for the Cordillera that we had envisioned as early as in our founding Congress.

Our position was that the Organic Acts passed by Congress was bogus autonomy.  We wanted to differentiate genuine regional autonomy as a recognition of the right to self-determination, not only the decentralization of administrative functions similar to that provided by the Local Government Code.  We wanted to differentiate between the form, i.e. setting up a regional bureaucracy, from the substance, i.e. full recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and the institutional rectification of national oppression and discrimination.

Furthermore, we became disillusioned with government when the Corazon Aquino regime which the mass movement had helped install through people power soon excluded the CPA because of our Left orientation.  The State instigated the collusion of central government, the CPLA and traditional leaders to try and marginalize the mass movement and coopt its earlier gains.  We were witness to the infighting and corruption of traditional leaders and opportunists who had jockeyed themselves into position in the superfluous bureaucracy of the CRA-CEB-CBAd created by E.O. 220.

It is ironic that what has been internationally projected as the return of democracy to the Philippines with the assumption of Corazon Aquino to the Philippine presidency was a most difficult time for the CPA. It was targetted with a systematic red scare and terrorist attacks from the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) in collusion with Philippine security forces and Malacañang. It is ironic that while the CPA was able to withstand the fascist repression of the Marcos dictatorship, it was subjected to much harsher tyranny under the so-called “democratic space” of the Corazon Aquino.

Truth to tell, these were difficult years for the militant mass movement in the region.  There was disillusionment with the new government that had tried to coopt and corrupt the popular movement for regional autonomy.  There was the sense of betrayal – tayo ang nagtanim, nag-ani, nagbayo at nagluto, tapos iba ang kumain.  There was the real threat to life and limb from the CPLA, aside from the great confusion caused by the split.

In any case, the government chose to coddle the CPLA, and excluded the CPA.  In defense, the CPA chose not to work with government and the CPLA.  It instead opted to critique the initiatives of government and the CPLA, CEB-CRA-CBAd, and later the two Organic Acts passed by Congress, while continuing with our campaign for genuine regional autonomy as opposed to bogus autonomy.

It has been 32 years since the founding of the CPA.  The Alliance has regained lost ground since those difficult years.  The national democratic mass movement in the Cordillera persists at conducting conscientization, building people’s organizations, launching campaigns in defense of land, life and cultural integrity, doing alternative self-determined development, and empowering the grassroots as we work towards our vision of genuine regional autonomy within a truly democratic and sovereign Philippine republic.  On the other hand, like a flash in the pan, the CRA-CEB-CBAd and the CPLA have ceased to exist.

The militant mass movement has learned valuable lessons from the failed government experiment with regional autonomy in the ARMM and E.O. 220.  Genuine regional autonomy cannot merely be structural nor mechanical.  For it to be substantial, it has to be predicated on a full and substantial recognition of indigenous people’s rights.  It cannot be rushed, as it can succeed only when the people are fully knowledgeable and prepared for it.  It cannot be merely granted from above, it has to be asserted by a conscientized and empowered people.

Furthermore, government cannot exclude the Left, whether this is the underground Left or the open democratic Left, especially as it was the Left which first articulated the call for regional autonomy as the form of self determination for the Cordillera.

It is in this light that we welcome the resumption of the Peace Talks between the Philippine government and the CPP-NPA-NDFP and the successful conclusion of the first round of formal peace talks just last week.  We fully support the peace process and have submitted the indigenous people’s agenda for consideration as the two panels proceed to the negotiations on socio-economic reform.  The agenda includes the recognition of ancestral land rights and regional autonomy as a recognition of the right to self-determination.

With regard to the Federal program of the new president Rodrigo Duterte, we are concerned not so much about the form as the substance.  We believe that genuine regional autonomy can be contextualized either within a federal arrangement or a unitary one.  What is important is that there should be structural changes so that the pyramid structure of Philippine society where only the few richest families profit from the toils of the majority is reversed.  A major stumbling block to the regional autonomy as self determination struggle is that the ruling elites in Philippine society are against it if the natural resources in the region are to be used primarily for the indigenous peoples’ benefit.

We believe that the Cordillera mountain range is the ancestral domain of the indigenous people in the region. We believe that the Cordillera region is indivisible because of our common history of national oppression, our common geography and adaptation to the mountainous terrain, the common persistence of indigenous cultures up to the present time, our common problems and enemies, and a common vision of our collective rights to ancestral land, self-identity and self-determination.  Among our major critiques of the earlier house bill, in fact, is the threatening tone that ony those who will vote yes in the referendum will compose the autonomous region.  The Cordillera should stand alone as one autonomous region or one federal state, and not be subsumed in a Northern Luzon state.

Activists are idealists in that we envision a new society not only for the Cordillera Autonomous Region or Federal State of the future, but also contextualized within a truly sovereign and democratic Philippine society.  We Igorot activists are idealists in that we would want to bring the best of indigenous society to the genuine transformation of Philippine society.

The new president has announced that change is coming.  The change that we want is the full recognition of indigenous peoples rights to their ancestral land and to self-determination, and the institutional rectification of national oppression and discrimination.