Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (Photo: AFP)
Philippine Church leaders have joined government agencies and civil society groups in disapproving of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s call for separating Mindanao from the rest of the country in Southeast Asia.
The 78-year-old threatened to separate his native Mindanao from the rest of the nation as his alliance with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. disintegrated in the past week after disagreements over amending the 1987 constitution. Marcos said it was meant to ease foreign investments while Duterte accused him of attempting to stay in power.
“We firmly believe that the Philippines is one nation, indivisible, and Mindanao is an integral part of our national identity and heritage,” said Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, national director of Caritas Philippines, the social arm of the nation’s Catholic bishops’ body.
Bagaforo conceded the challenges faced by the southern island, where a majority of Muslims live, but stressed that “solutions lie in collaborative efforts and addressing root causes of conflict, not in division.”
“We urge the government and all stakeholders to work together to address issues of poverty, inequality and marginalization, comprehensively and inclusively,” he added.
In a statement on Feb. 9, Caritas Philippines said the Catholic-majority nation “needs leaders who promote unity and healing, not division and discord.”
The statement warned of the harmful consequences of divisive rhetoric, especially from those who held positions of power. It can potentially reignite old conflicts and hinder progress made towards national unity and healing, it said.
“We believe that true statesmanship lies in responsible and constructive engagement, not in inflammatory pronouncements,” it added.
Duterte was the first president who hailed from Mindanao. His term ended on June 30, 2022.
“Former presidents have a crucial role to play in fostering national unity and providing guidance through their experience. This role demands thoughtful reflection, measured words, and actions that prioritize the common good,” Caritas Philippines said.
Redemptorist priest Amado Picardal said Duterte’s latest tirade “sounds to me like a crazy idea of a desperate powerless ex-president.”
The Duterte critic said it could be an attempt to evade the impending arrest by the International Criminal Court (ICC) following the probe into the “bloody war on drugs.”
“It [separation demand] doesn't have the support of Mindanaoans like me. It doesn't deserve anyone's serious attention,” Picardal told UCA News.
Lawyer Aaron Pedrosa from the progressive group, Sanlakas, viewed the former president’s rhetoric as an attempt “to rally support from Mindanao, his perceived bailiwick.”
“This latest episode in the continuing intramurals between Marcos and Duterte camps is telling of a brewing political crisis, with the latter showing no qualms about resorting to force,” he told UCA News.
He warned against siding with either of the political factions. “They have nothing but their political interests with Marcos flirting with Charter change and Duterte trying to save his skin from ICC prosecution,” Pedrosa said.
The justice department said on Feb. 5: “Secession is regarded as contrary to the principles of our democratic society, as stated in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. The Department of Justice remains committed to protecting our sovereignty. and upholding the sanctity of the highest law of the land.”
“Any attempt to secede any part of the Philippines will be met by the government with resolute force," added National Security Adviser Eduardo Año in a separate statement.
Meanwhile, Mindanao leaders also expressed disapproval of calls to separate Mindanao from the rest of the country.
“We affirm that secession is not the answer to Mindanao’s concerns. It denies our people the rights embodied by the constitution, including the destruction of our territorial integrity [and] compromising our efforts to build a stronger nation,” said Mariam Sangki-Mangudadatu, governor of Maguindanao del Sur.
Datu Pax Ali Mangudadatu, governor of Sultan Kudarat said the calls for division “would disrupt the interconnected productivity of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao that has long sustained our national economy, and risk fracturing the foundation of our unity and national stability.”
The divisive statements will also lead to the reversal of the “comprehensive peace process” that led to the end of armed conflicts in Mindanao, he added.