"Otonomi kayo nga otonomi, baka awan tun ti ituno mi". Some few years ago, this pun has been a common banter among folks in the barrios when the issue on regional autonomy manages to surface in discussions, speeches, and even in roundpost-induced debates. While it seems like a lame attempt at humor, such satire is actually pregnant with meaning if viewed from a different stand point. The most obvious is that Cordillerans are worried about the fate of the local economy and the effects on their traditional way of life if the region will be under an autonomous government.
Since its inception in the 1987 constitution, the quest for regional autonomy for the Cordillera has failed twice in two plebiscites and until now, debates still ensue as to whether or not autonomy is truly beneficial to the different localities comprising the region. Sadly in the ongoing exchange of views, participation seems to be limited to leaders, politicians, business entities, and those who are in the upper strata of society. People in the grassroots or the ordinary Cordillerans are still left in the dark as to the true nature and prospects of this constitutional mandate.
There are lots of info graphics circulating in print and in social media campaigning for autonomy hinged upon the hope that sufficient information fed to the public will reshape their perception in favor of the measure. True enough, information is the key. The previous struggles for autonomy has been fraught with unfounded fears, baseless what if's, and false particulars mostly fueled by ill intentions and self-interests from some sectors. The real problem now is that most of the people's questions are being met with general statement of concepts such as "self-rule", "self-determination", "stronger cultural identity", etc. By this time, we should have learned the hard lessons of the past. The idea of regional autonomy should be explained in layman's terms to the people who will decide its fate lest we lose the chance again and perhaps we will never have another shot.
The constitutional basis of regional autonomy is the undeniable truth that the regions of Cordillera and Mindanao have been, to a certain degree, neglected in terms of development and funding aside from the fact that they are uniquely vested with a cultural heritage that is distinct from the other parts of the country. The framers of the 1987 Constitution acknowledged the need to grant special concession to these regions for them to competently cope with the developmental pace of their counterparts while maintaining their cultural identity, ingenuity, traditions, and preferences.
For all intents and purposes, the autonomy mandate is a great opportunity for growth both in culture and economics. It offers management of affairs and resources that are tailor-fitted to the Igorot persona. Why then did the Cordillerans choose to kill it twice? In a survey conducted in 2007, it was revealed that first, a good number of people did not understand the concept of autonomy hence were undecided or hesitant to vote for it; second, many were not aware that it is a constitutional mandate; and third, many were not aware of the powers vested in the regional government. These, along with other issues such as fiscal stability, organizational structure, regional security, and the role of the national government, are the key points that need to be addressed in a manner that is easily understood and appreciated by the common folks.
With the filing of HB 5343, "An Act Establishing the Autonomous Region of the Cordillera (ARC)", there is a desperate need to educate the people and quiet their fears before a plebiscite is set. The benefits of autonomy may be easier to convey considering the innate intelligence of the Cordillerans. What is harder to pacify is the people's trepidation towards imaginary offshoots such as wide-spread corruption that could jeopardize the economy and deprive them of their "maituno", job displacement as a result of reorganization, diminished funding from the national government, etc. These, of course, are mere speculations which have no factual or legislative basis.
The autonomy initiative is a gift to indigenous communities that survived centuries of colonial domination with relative economic independence, cultural integrity, and an unbreakable sense of WE as a people. Even with the passage of time, the Igorot communities still have the cultural and organizational resources to create alternatives for their own development and to assume control over their affairs based on long cherished traditions. The constitution is thus taking the lead in striking a balance between sustainable development and ethnic preservation.
Each and every one should do their part in promoting what is best for the region. We all should participate in advocating the idea that we can perform better as a people under the right circumstances. Autonomy is the best way to showcase our good political practices, excellent brand of leadership, deep environmental affection, cultural unity, and unique indigenous way of life especially in these times where our sense of pride is being continuously shaken by misinformation, ignorance, and inappropriate social labeling. The "kaigorotan" is a heritage worth fighting for and through autonomy; a better, stronger, and prouder Cordillera will be within our grasp.