MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – What will happen if Congress fails to pass the proposed Bangsamoro basic law (BBL)? Will war once again erupt in Mindanao? Is there no other option?
With only a year left before the administration of President Benigno Aquino III ends, the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro basic law (BBL) in Congress remains uncertain.
A tipping point was reached when the Mamasapano clash, which killed 67 Filipinos, eroded the political capital of the President and unleashed many reservations about the controversial bill.
The Senate deadline was moved to October just as 12 senators signed the committee report concluding that the BBL is unconstitutional, indicating that the Senate would push for major revisions. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr has gone to the extent of saying he will file a new bill that is substantially different from what is being deliberated.
Over at the House of Representatives, House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II admitted passing the bill now is a “cause for concern.” After the bill was passed in the committee, House members were accused of allegedly railroading its approval.
What are the scenarios as the bill faces uncertain support in Congress, constitutional issues, and a tight timeline?
1. Congress fails to pass the BBL and a fallout among rebels follows
If the House and the Senate fail to pass the BBL, the status quo would remain – the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) would stay in place and the same regional posts would be available for contention in the 2016 elections.
MILF combatants would also not decommission their firearms.
Although the MILF leadership has committed to stay the course of peace and continue pushing for the passage of the BBL in the next administration, we are considering a scenario where frustrated members would defect to radical groups.
In a hearing at the House of Representatives in April, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal warned that “uncertainty will give way to lawlessness in Mindanao” if the BBL is not passed. Not a few lawmakers criticized the MILF for such statements, calling them a form of blackmail.
These statements are not without context, however.
When the Supreme Court declared an initial agreement between the Arroyo administration and the MILF on ancestral domains unconstitutional in 2008, the late Umra Kato broke away from the MILF and formed the more radical Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
The BIFF has reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Although there have been no confirmed reports of Filipinos joining ISIS, former military chief Emmanuel Bautista said the failure of the peace process in Mindanao would attract extremists to seek refuge in conflict areas.
Government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in an April press conference that the radicalization towards ISIS-like groups is a “real threat.”
“It is a religion-based ideology that would be more intractable, or more difficult and very, very bloody if you go through the history of religious wars,” she said.
Before this could happen, there is, however, some hope for contingencies.
2. The peace panels agree to postpone the BBL and pass it on to the next administration
The worst scenario for the MILF, Iqbal said in a March forum, is for Congress to pass a law that is not consistent with the peace deal signed in March 2014, or worse, results in a weaker autonomous region.
The next best option, aside from passing a “good BBL”, is to defer deliberations to the next administration.
It is an option that an adviser to the MILF has presented to the organization.
Lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, former ARMM executive secretary, said he advised the MILF central committee to be honest with their counterparts in the government peace panel in cautioning them from proceeding with the BBL if the measure that is shaping up in Congress does not fulfill the peace accord.
Sinarimbo said mechanisms created under the peace process would be sufficient to address these contingencies.
After all, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was signed and is still binding. The peace panels from both sides were also not disbanded.
“What we hope is that the new architecture of the peace process can hold without… violence,” Sinarimbo said on the sidelines of an experts forum organized by the Institute of Autonomy and Governance in May.
“So far, [with] the discipline that the troops of MILF is showing, it seems that the MILF can (control all its members on the ground), but we don’t know really. It’s unchartered territory. We can’t predict what will happen,” Sinarimbo said.
The Senate is likely to make major revisions to the BBL after Santiago’s report declared the parliamentary form of government in the Bangsamoro unconstitutional – an aspect that the MILF negotiated hard for. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr has gone to the extent of saying he is filing another bill substantially different from what had been earlier filed.
Meanwhile, the MILF said it “appreciates” but “does not necessarily accept” the changes introduced by the House of Representatives in the law.
Aquino wants the law passed under his term to ensure its implementation. Civil society organizations backing the BBL are also pushing for the law to be approved before Aquino steps down from office.
With an October deadline set in the Senate, however, it might be up to the next administration to implement most parts of the peace deal, including programs for the return of rebels to mainstream life.
The biggest danger in pursuing this track is the uncertainty on whether the next administration would honor the peace deal.
Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio la Viña urged the government and the MILF to explore the possibility of crafting a “transition agreement.”
“I actually think that a BBL that is owned by the next president is much better than a BBL owned by this president,” La Viña said during the experts’ forum.
“We’re better off taking our time and really getting this right than pushing a law that is worse than what we have here. That should be an option,” he added.
3. Congress passes the BBL but waters it down
If Congress passes a law that is weaker than the current ARMM, the MILF is likely to reject it.
Such a situation would result in a repeat of what happened in 2001, when the MILF’s rival group, the Moro National Liberation Front, boycotted the plebiscite after insisting that the amended ARMM law rendered the supposedly enhanced regional government less autonomous.
Sinarimbo said the MILF could even be forced to campaign for a no vote, similar to what happened in the past.
Both the Senate and House leaders have been adamant in saying that the BBL will not pass unchanged in Congress, especially with grave constitutional issues surrounding it. Other stakeholders in the process, including ARMM employees, local government officials, indigenous peoples and the traditional sultanates, also want their concerns incorporated in the BBL.
Already, the MILF said that some amendments introduced by the House on mineral resources and the inclusion of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act violate the peace accord. The government peace panel meanwhile took the view that the House retained the most important parts of the bill.
Passing a law that is acceptable to all sides should not be taken lightly, said former Basilan Representative Gerry Salapuddin, a provincial commander of the MNLF before joining politics.
“I don’t think the Moro mujahideens would accept their fate to be cheated twice. In other words, from the MILF to the MNLF, if in case this one will still fail, it’s not only going to be a recipe for disaster but it might be the glue that will reunite all the different factions of the MILF to continue the struggle not anymore for autonomy but – even if I don’t have to tell you this but I guess you will be guessing the same as I do – for independence,” Salapuddin said.
One option that could be considered to expedite the process under the Aquino administration, Salapuddin said, is to amend the ARMM law and incorporate all the “pertinent and applicable” provisions of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 during the Marcos regime, the 1996 peace agreement between the MNLF and government, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the MILF and the government and the proposed Bangsamoro basic law.
Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan II also made a similar proposal to amend the ARMM law during the Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, June 3.
The implementation of what was agreed upon in the peace deal is also tied up with the staggered decommissioning of rebel firearms.
A certain percentage of rebel firearms will be turned over after the proposed BBL is passed in Congress and ratified in a plebiscite (30%); when the Bangsamoro government and the Bangsamoro police is created (35%); and when the exit agreement is signed (35%) after the establishment of the Bangsamoro government.
It remains to be seen whether the MILF would decommission if all the milestones as envisioned in the peace deal are not achieved.
4. Pass the BBL and provide for a longer transition period
This is perhaps one of the least likely scenarios for the BBL.
Salapuddin said he was one of those who wrote the House ad hoc committee on the BBL to consider increasing the duration of the MILF-led transition body to 3 years.
This would give the MILF-led body enough space to prove their capacity for leadership, Salapuddin said.
“I wonder what can they do (with the remaining time)? If they fail, we will again blame them,” he said. “If Congress will give another failed experiment, do not expect the Bangsamoro to produce miracles,” he added.
With the new October deadline at the Senate, the transition body is left with less than 6 months to govern before the 2016 elections as the bill will still have be ratified in a plebiscite. Opponents are also expected to question it before the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers deliberating the law should learn from the experience of current ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman, who took 2 years to finish the reorganization of the regional government, Salapuddin said. “And yet he was not creating a new entity,” he added.
Under the BBL, the autonomous regional government would shift from a unitary, presidential form towards a parliamentary form with more functions.
Akbayan Representative Ibarra Gutierrez said the possibility for a longer transition period was “floated as an option” in discussions but there is “no critical mass” supporting it so far.
“Maybe the better version is to amend or prolong the process, go back to the drawing board – abandon the BBL since you still have the CAB. But that has its own risks. We don’t know what will be the attitude of the next administration,” Gutierrez said. Akbayan is an administration ally.
The period of transition can be discussed but what is of paramount important is the content of the law, Sinarimbo said.
“The law is long-term. It will create institutions. It would be difficult to change them if they turn out to be ineffective,” he said. – Rappler.com