December 6, 2023

Thirty-seven years ago on Sep. 13, 1986, Fr. Conrado “Ka Ambo” Balweg and his heavily armed Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) marched to Mount Data Hotel, in Bauko, Mountain Province and entered into a sipat, a Cordillera customary practice signifying a cessation of hostilities with the national government.
The Mount Data sipat is again being remembered as a special non-working holiday in the Cordillera Administrative Region. Little is known, however, why it is worthy of celebration.
It is not Fr. Balweg and the CPLA, but the effect of the historic agreement to present-day developments. Many are unaware the peace agreement paved the way for the creation of the Cordillera, which created regional offices creating positions and employing hundreds.
With a separate region, the development of Cordillera provinces has become more focused. The Cordillera also enhanced Baguio City and Benguet to be the hub of business and education of Northern Luzon.
During the sipat, then President Corazon Aquino and Fr. Balweg performed the traditional allasiw (exchange of peace tokens) to signify the sipat. Fr. Balweg and other CPLA and ethnic leaders met with then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, then Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Fidel Ramos, and other ranking government officials.
To symbolize unity among the Cordillera people and the national government, Aquino offered the Holy Bible and a rosary to the CPLA while Balweg gave a warrior’s shield and head ax in return. The exchange of peace tokens is consistent with the customary bodong practice, wherein the acceptance of tokens signifies that the parties can now sit down in peace and start negotiations for a peace agreement.
A memorandum of agreement was then signed between CPLA and the AFP, formalizing an end to the armed conflict, which paved the way for the legal form of struggle. It was signed by then AFP generals Jesus dela Cruz and Manuel Ribu, and Fr. Balweg and P. Abbacan representing the CPLA.
Witnesses for the CPLA were Leonardo Bun-as, Mariano Agosto, Mario Yag-ao, Ina Indammeg, and Lourdes Limmayog while the government witness was Teodoro Benzon. Most of the witnesses are already dead, except for CPLA leader Leonardo Bun-as alias Ka Mando.
The Sept. 13 sipat is an adoption of a long respected cultural practice of settling disputes. It may have several ways or names, but settling disputes among conflicting ethnic groups or feuding clans in the Cordillera is strictly observed.
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.
The late veteran journalist Peppot Ilagan, my mentor with the Cordillera News Agency and Gold Ore weekly, snapped a perfect photo of the allasiw while my photojournalist friend, Dave “Kulot” Leprozo, Jr., took memorable side photos that includes Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong, then a young military commander.
It was a brief peace dialogue between the parties centered on the problems in the Cordillera and the possible establishment of an autonomous region.
Under the agreement, CPLA members were allowed to freely consult with leaders in Cordillera provided they will not interfere with the normal functions of local government units and the ongoing development projects, except the Cellophil and Chico River projects.
To recall, the two multi-million government-sponsored projects caused the fast increase of communist insurgency in the Cordillera and created the popular Lumbaya Company of the New People’s Army. It is composed of native Cordillera fighters who eventually became the backbone of the CPLA that split from the NPA due to ideological differences.
On July 15, 1987, after six months of painstaking negotiations, Executive Order 220 creating CAR out of Ifugao, Kalinga, and Apayao from the Cagayan Valley region and the provinces of Abra, Benguet, Mountain Province, and Baguio City from Ilocos region. Under the indigenous bodong system, EO 220 was regarded as an interim pagta or a written agreement between the parties.
EO 220 was signed by virtue of the residual powers of Aquino under the Freedom Constitution. EO 220 is an initial step prior to the creation of an autonomous region on a permanent basis.
Under the CAR, the Cordillera Executive Board (CEB), the Cordillera Regional Assembly (CRA), and regional line agencies were created. The main purpose of CAR is to accelerate the economic and social growth and development of the region as well as to prepare for the establishment of the autonomous region in the Cordillera as provided by the Constitution.
Congress tried twice to pass an Organic Act creating the Cordillera Autonomous Region, but it failed to pass the required plebiscite.
The CPLA becoming the peacekeeping force of the region did not materialize due to constitutional conflict of maintaining two military units in an area.
Balweg, meanwhile, was assassinated on Dec. 31, 1999 by the NPA allegedly due to blood debts. This caused a setback in the autonomy drive in the Cordillera, and the CPLA split into two although maintaining respect in both.
But the military successfully integrated dozens of CPLA combatants or their children or relatives. Some were even believed to be newly recruited CPLA’s by the split groups. The military went ahead and integrated the CPLA in two batches accommodating both split groups.
On Feb. 15, 2000, then President Joseph Estrada excluded the funding of CAR bodies such as CEB and CRA and provided a minimal budget for the transitory bodies’ winding up of operations. On March 31, 2001, the CEB and CRA ceased to exist and a Regional Development Council (RDC) was created and operates until the present.
While the government considers the Mount Data sipat as a good model among all peace agreements, other Cordillera natives perceive the agreement as a monument of unfulfilled promises and an obscured vision of a government-inspired development for as long as the Cordillera provinces remain the poorest provinces category nationwide.
A third attempt for autonomy might be the solution to make Cordillera provinces at par or even better than other provinces. Autonomy remains a dream to be recalled every 13th of September.