Autonomy - Miriam Coronel Ferrer

Miriam Coronel Ferrer/

Posted at Sep 04 2008 06:43 PM | Updated as of Sep 05 2008 02:43 AM

Autonomy is a precious word that applies to many dimensions of human existence. It is rooted in the universal belief, religious and secular, that human beings have the free will to think and act.  This free will is nurtured in an environment that supports the development of responsible, autonomous human beings.  A situation in the family, school, office, community or country that stifles autonomy is oppressive. Deny free will, and you strip the human being of dignity.
Political scientists use the concept of autonomy in several ways, but always anchored on the notion of freedom. “State autonomy” refers to the capacity of the state to take action, free from the pressure of outside forces like big business and religious institutions that prevent it from instituting the needed reforms.

The failure to bring about economic upliftment in weak states like the Philippines is blamed on this lack of autonomy of government institutions from the interference of powerful societal forces who manipulate state processes, programs and resources to suit their vested interests. In contrast, where state autonomy is strong, like in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, the state was able to advance its development agenda.

However, strong states risk becoming authoritarian. This usually happened in cases where, in the course of state- and nation-building, one state institution (the military, presidency, or ruling political party) was able to usurp political power, suppress political opposition, and destroy the check and balance among state institutions. Indeed, many governments turned authoritarian in this manner in the 1960s and 1970s.

As citizens battled authoritarian states, the concept of civil society was revived. This time, the essence of civil society was extracted from the notion of autonomy -- that is, autonomy from the state.  Civil society organizations (CSOs) were defined as non-state groups that engaged the state on matters of public policy.   Groups that were not autonomous from the state were not considered real CSOs but the state’s opportunistic agents or adjuncts.

Such is the value given to autonomy in current “civil society” usage.


The word autonomy is also applied to alternative political arrangements that allow for greater independence of constituent parts from the central state.  It has two main variants: territorial and non-territorial.

The latter includes measures to enhance personal and institutional autonomy for certain groups through their own religious, educational and economic institutions that are ran according to their value systems. Examples are the Catholic/Christian schools,  the madrasahs, Islamic banks, and the Shari’ah courts that govern family relations among the Muslims.

In areas with distinct, concentrated populations (as most current administrative regions and provinces in the country are), spatial, jurisdictional autonomy may be preferred.

Territorial autonomy implies remaining part of the country while enjoying more share in the exercise of political power over a territorial portion of the state. It is not dismemberment of the country. 

In autonomous arrangements, sovereign powers are shared, divided, transferred or devolved. Doing so is not extremely radical at all. Governments compromise state sovereignty every time they allow the flow of goods and people from abroad, forge international agreements, receive foreign aid, and join international bodies. The Philippine government even welcomes foreign troops.

Strangely, state leaders have been more willing to share sovereignty to the outside world than to their own people, from whom sovereignty came in the first place, following the principle that the government is for, of, and by the people.

Also, governments have used the power of eminent domain and police power often to the disadvantage of certain classes of people like the farming and indigenous communities.

So it has been said that state leaders love the territory more than the people. They also forget that “the people” are not one single entity but are made up of many distinct communities with different ways of life.  They embark on homogenizing projects whose elements are decided by them, the powerful elite, rather than drawn inclusively from component parts.

A glaring example of this process is the choice of Tagalog as the national language, even though it is but one among our many languages; and of English as the state language, even though it is alien and disempowering to many.

Autonomy requires not only a downward stream. Being part of the whole necessitates “upward” reforms. Greater representation of marginalized communities and sectors in national institutions is a must, if constituent parts are to feel they belong.

Scholars have offered various formulae to enhance national representation beyond the simple majority or plurality rule but these alternatives have yet to be publicly debated in our country. The party list system in Congress, the only such measure, is even being distorted and opposed.

Autonomy is a tricky concept but immensely relevant to our troubled state of affairs.

The more citizens know why the Local Government Code and the autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera failed to bring about meaningful autonomy, the more we discuss the possibilities and constraints of other autonomy options, the better the choices we can make for our collective future.

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