October 2, 2023

On July 15, 1987, the Cordillera Administrative Region was formed. We were then young, progressive, and determined to attain autonomy but we were granted a special administrative region instead.
The new region culled out Ifugao, Kalinga and Apayao from the Cagayan Valley Region and the provinces of Abra, Benguet, Mountain Province and Baguio City from the Ilocos Region. The national government then issued Administrative Order 36 creating regional line agencies or offices under CAR.
Let us recall what really happened.
After a peaceful revolution in 1986, the (Corazon) Aquino administration advocated a policy of national reconciliation and has called on all revolutionary forces to a peace dialogue.
The Cordillera, through Fr. Conrado Balweg’s Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), heeded the call.
On Sep. 13, 1986, Balweg and his CPLA went to Mt. Data Hotel in Bauko, Mountain Province and entered into a historic peace agreement with the government.
Balweg, along with other CPLA and ethnic group leaders, were met by then President Corazon Aquino, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Fidel V. Ramos and other ranking government officials.
It was a brief peace dialogue between the parties centered on the problems in Cordillera and the possible establishment of an autonomous region.
To symbolize unity among the Cordillera indigenous peoples and the national government, Aquino offered a bible and a rosary to the CPLA while Balweg gave a warrior’s shield and head ax in return.
The exchange of peace tokens or allasiw was consistent with the bodong practice, wherein the acceptance of tokens signifies that the parties can now sit down in peace and start negotiations for a peace agreement or sipat.
During that symbolic encounter, gongs were played as the uniformed battle-weary CPLA combatants rested their rifles and shared smiles with their former foes from the military. A cessation of hostilities ensued following customary bodong of sipat to pave the way for a peaceful negotiation.
A 26-point demand was later raised by the Cordillera people through Balweg.
Among the immediate demands was to stop the Cellophil Corporation operations in Abra which denuded mountains and eroded communities down the Abra River.
Another demand was to stop the series of dam projects along the Chico River in Kalinga which could have submerged upstream communities.
The primary demand was to grant autonomy in the Cordillera.
The demand became the agenda of initial dialogues until the signing of a joint statement of the government panel and the Cordillera panel on March 27, 1987 for the formation of negotiating panels to agree on a common document that will bind the peace agreement. The agreement was signed by then military generals Jesus dela Cruz and Manuel Ribu, representing the AFP, and Balweg and P. Abbacan representing the CPLA.
Witnesses for the CPLA were Leonardo Musling, Mariano Agosto, Mario Yag-ao, ina Indammeg and Lourdes Limmayog, while the government witness was Teodoro Benzon.
Under the bodong system, a formal agreement between ethnic groups is termed as “pagta”.
On July 15, 1987, after six months of painstaking negotiations, the pagta was formulated through Executive Order 220 creating the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). The creation of CAR was Balweg’s legacy to the Cordillera.
Balweg and the Cordillera Bodong Administration-CPLA was represented by Manila-based young Cordillera professionals led by Abrino Aydinan and lawyers Eugenio Ensigne, Fred Bagbagen, David Allaga, Nestor Atitiw, and other professionals such as Cameron Odsey, Edwin Daiwey, Andres Aggulin and Fausto Kadatar. Candido Basbasen was then the CBA secretary general.
Baguio-based support staff at the Cordillera House included myself, Marcelina Bahatan, Paulina Sawadan, Gabino Ganggangan, Edwin Muyao, Manny Ongalan, Rudy Tarapen, Juanita Chulsi, and Marianette Laguicao among others.
When CAR was created, several politicians who felt left-out strategically supported the CAR creation.
Baguio-based professionals through Brigitte Pawid, Fernando Bahatan, Albert Buyawe, Francis Buliyat, among others, organized themselves into the short-lived Cordillera Broad Coalition as an advisory body. Bahatan remained as an adviser of Balweg.
Student campus leaders participated in a Cordillera Youth Congress we organized with my partner Edwin Muyao. Participating youth leaders include co-facilitator Michael Sugguiyao, Teddy Delson, Daisy Lee, Lawrence Bulayungan, Leslie Hernandez, Ferdinand Caramto, and many more who likewise proved their leadership in their present career.
EO 220 was signed by Aquino under the “freedom Constitution” and has the equivalent of a law passed by Congress. This was intended to be a stepping stone toward the creation of an autonomous region.
After the creation of CAR and its structure, the political participation of the CPLA has gradually been reduced and limited only through its political arm, the CBA, recognized as a commission under the Cordillera Executive Board (CEB). The CPLA struggle will be another story.
Regional line agencies were organized and established in Baguio, which became an unsuspecting beneficiary of CAR creation after people from all over Cordillera provinces and Northern Luzon flooded the city for employment and business.
The first Organic Act creating the CAR was drafted by the Cordillera Regional Consultative Commission (CRCC).
Most commissioners were appointees of newly reactivated and elected congressmen.
The draft was forwarded to Congress to be co-sponsored by all Cordillera lawmakers.
I was a technical staff and member of the CRCC drafting committee and witnessed how the draft was watered down by Congress, downgrading all the autonomy features to be consistent with national laws.
In 1990, a plebiscite was held to create an autonomous region under Republic Act 6766 but only Ifugao voted to ratify the law. The bill was refiled and an autonomy plebiscite was held on March 7, 1998 but it was again rejected.
The disapproval was blamed on too many misconceptions on autonomy and false belief related to the role of Balweg and his armed group even if it was not included in the Organic Act.
As a matter of fact, most CPLA and their descendants were already integrated into the AFP and many went back to private life or rejoined mainstream society.
Remnants of the CBA-CPLA are still pushing for autonomy or at least federal autonomy features.
After 36 years, the illusive dream of Cordillera autonomy lingers.
Most of those who joined the anniversary celebration may not even know why CAR was formed and its relevance to autonomy.
Also, most of the Cordillera autonomy pioneers are dead, some moved on, and a few remained consistent in their dream.
Simply stated, autonomy is just like a member of a family who matures and feels responsible as an adult.
The adult finds a source of living, got married, and started growing his family separate from his parents abode and income.
The new family is independent but does not lose family affiliation and name. He is now autonomous.
The present set-up of CAR is just like a married child who still stays with parents house as one big family. There is only administrative independence but in terms of social, political and even economic development needs, the married child cannot yet decide on its own.
Those who were born when CAR was created would have been married and independently raising their own families. They are autonomous.
We are all getting old together with the elusive autonomy but I am not losing hope that someday, somehow, Cordillera autonomy will soon be realized.
Maybe not at our time or even our children. But for as long as the elusive dream lingers, autonomy can still be reached as songwriter(s) Joe Darion, Mitch Leigh said: “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go, to right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star.”
(Editors’ note: The author was once a Baguio-based journalist and a government employee before he migrated with his family in the United States. He is now an outstanding teacher in Dallas, Texas).