BAGUIO CITY—There are voices in the wilderness of the Cordilleras seemingly long forgotten after the death of "rebel priest" Conrado Balweg 18 years ago, but all seeking to be heard amid renewed calls for federalism.
Balweg’s brother, Jovencio, a former hitman of the New People’s Army (NPA); their elder brother, Bienvenido; and the slain leader’s former comrades at the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) met with ABS-CBN News for an interview last week to remind President Rodrigo Duterte of the government's promise to provide autonomy to the people of Cordilleras 32 years ago.
“The government has a standing covenant with the people of the Cordilleras to grant us an autonomy,” said the 72-year-old Jovencio, referring to the peace agreement Balweg forged with President Corazon Aquino in September 1986.
Called the Mount Data Peace Accord, the covenant paved the way for Aquino's Executive Order No. 220 (E0 220) in July 1987, creating the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) and integrating Cordillera rebels with the police and the Armed Forces in hunting down NPA rebels.
The CPLA leaders have since been hoping that the CAR would give birth to an autonomous region, as mandated by the 1987 Constitution.
It is ironic, however, that Jovencio is now at the forefront of those seeking the implementation of the peace agreement.
Under Conrado Balweg, the CPLA broke away from the NPA after the EDSA Revolution, alleging that the armed group of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) had overlooked the plight of the Cordilleras.
Then still with the CPP-NPA, Jovencio took the blame for the rebel priest's death on December 31, 1999, at the height of violent conflict between the NPA and splinter group CPLA. (Police later identified another NPA leader, a member of Jovencio’s squad, linked to Conrado Balweg's murder several days later).
Jovencio currently serves as municipal councilor in Malibcong town in Abra.
“I have no regrets of the things I learned from the NPA,” he told ABS-CBN News when the interview tackled Balweg’s death. “It still hurts me.”
Jovencio said he and his remaining brothers want the government to grant them autonomy first, federalism later, if federalism would at all be acceptable to the Cordillerans, he said.
“I am very supportive of any individual or group advocating autonomy in the Cordilleras,” he said.
Besides Bienvenido and Jovencio, Balweg had 2 other brothers and 3 sisters.
One of Balweg's children was a CPLA member who was integrated into the Philippine Army in 2012.
The CPLA leaders and comrades had let go of their arms while holding on to that covenant, Bienvenido said, hoping to live their lives the way the Cordillerans should after 2 government projects in the Cordilleras resulted in violent deaths of their leaders and displaced of hundreds of residents toward the end of the Marcos regime.
"We want to choose our leaders," he said.
NOT READY FOR FEDERALISM
The Balweg brothers, the rebel priest’s CPLA comrade and aide John Blue, and Balweg’s right-hand man Junior Briones said it would greatly disadvantage the Cordilleras if the government pushes through with a proposal putting together the CAR, the Cagayan Valley, and the Ilocos Region into one federal state.
In all aspects of development, the 81-year-old Bienvenido said, the government puts its money where there is a great land area and population. The CAR would thus be prioritized the least, it being the smallest of the 3 regions, he added.
“We want autonomy, we are not ready for federalism,” he said.
Bienvenido said the CPLA leaders fear that the proposed federal setup would get in the way of the promised autonomy to the Cordillera’s six provinces — Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Province, with Baguio City as the regional center, all rich in mines and rivers.
The 1987 Constitution provides for autonomy in the Cordilleras. Yet two plebiscites held separately in 1989 and 1990 failed to get enough affirmative votes, a precondition under the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
But the CAR has suffered from the national government’s neglect, according to the Balwegs, owing to the changing political climes in Manila.
Under Aquino’s EO 220, the CAR received an annual appropriation of P36 million.
In February 2000, Joseph Estrada signed the national budget reducing the CAR budget to P1, rendering the body inutile.
In July 2001, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued another executive order creating the Regional Development Council in the Cordillera Administrative Region with an annual budget of P18 million.
WAITING FOR "DU30"
In April 2016, the CPLA leaders sent then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte a letter calling his attention to their plight.
Since he became president, they have sent him two other letters through Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza. The last one was on February 8. They're still waiting for a reply.
Bienvenido said he has not lost hope that Duterte would soon pay attention to the region.
“Now that there is no more violence or rebellion here, the government is ignoring us. We don’t kill each other here, unlike in the South,” he said.
"That is our dilemma here: Should we create noise here? Should we create fireworks here? Everybody is a warrior here and everybody can be called upon to fight for autonomy. But we want peace here. We want progress here now."