BBL’s hot issue: Who gets to control rich Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf?

Mara Cepeda

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BBL’s hot issue: Who gets to control rich Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf?

It's a deadlock at the bicameral conference committee

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The bicameral conference committee on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is deadlocked over provisions covering the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf. 

It’s a resource-rich area, with several provinces in Mindanao benefitting from these fishing grounds. 

At about 5:30 pm on Thursday, July 12, bicam chairperson and Senate Majority Leader Miguel Zubiri said the bicam already adopted the House version provision assigning the Bangsamoro waters in the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf to extend up to 19 kilometers from the low-water mark of the coasts that are part of the new region’s jurisdiction. 

The Senate version only placed the Bangsamoro territory over these waters at 15 kilometers. 

Lawmakers, however, still fought for other aspects of control over the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf, forcing them to extend the bicam meeting to 1:50 am Friday, June 13. (READ: Bicam draft ‘not a watered-down BBL,’ says BTC chair Jaafar

Both the House and the Senate versions of the BBL mandate the creation of a joint body on the zones of joint cooperation in the Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf.

The joint body, composed of officials of the Bangsamoro and the national government, would be tasked to protect the traditional fishing grounds, benefit from the resources in these waters, and ensure the interconnectivity of the Bangsamoro islands and mainland parts so they form a “cohesive Bangsamoro political entity.”

But there’s a catch: In the Senate version, the Bangsamoro chief minister would chair this joint body. The House version wants two co-chairs: The Bangsamoro chief minister and the Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary.

Senators in the bicam already agreed to adopt the House version. But BBL opposer and Zamboanga City 1st District Representative Celso Lobregat wanted to downgrade this further – give the Bangsamoro chief minister only the vice chairmanship. 

This did not sit well with Maguindanao 1st District Representative Bai Sandra Sema and Tawi-Tawi Representative Ruby Sahali, who already had a heated argument with Lobregat over the same waters on Wednesday night.

Zubiri explained Sahali and Sema, also a deputy speaker, were concerned that if the Bangsamoro chair minister will be relegated to just a vice chairperson of the joint body, the Bangsamoro would lose powers over Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf.

It’s because of the social justice concern kasi wala na silang makain. At least bigyan naman natin ng pagkakaton na may equal footing ‘yong chief minister atsaka ‘yong secretary of the DA to make a decision, jointly,” Zubiri told reporters.

(It’s because of the social justice concern that they have nothing to eat. They want the Bangsamoro chief minister be given equal footing with the secretary of the DA to make a decision, jointly.)

Kasi kung vice chair, ‘yong fear siguro nila ‘di sila papansinin. Baka you know, kung co-chair, they can convene, ‘di ba? If it’s vice chair, you cannot convene without the vice chair. So maybe that’s their contention there,” he added. 

(Their fear over the Bansamoro chief minister just being the vice chair is that their concerns would not be heard. The chair would have powers to convene the group, right? But as vice chair, you cannot convene the joint body without the chair. So maybe that’s their contention there.)

House executive session called

Lobregat said district representatives met on an executive session to solve the impasse.

“What I was pushing for was that policies can be jointly drawn up by the national government and the Bangsamoro government, but the regulation of implementation should only be done by national government,” said Lobregat.

He said the House panel had a “heated argument, heated debate” over the issue. They could not find middle ground, so they put it up to a vote – stick to the original House provision or adopt Lobregat’s amendment.

Lobregat lost, but he called it a “close vote.”

“Since we couldn’t come at a compromise, it was voted upon. What prevailed was the original House version, not my amendment,” he said.

Jobs vs social justice

Zubiri also believes the 3 lawmakers are locking horns over the Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf because of two issues: Job generation versus social injustice. (READ: Bicam approves creation of Shari’ah High Court in Bangsamoro)

“One portion here is of course, the jobs generated by the fishing industry and the income derived from it. But at the same time, there’s the social justice problem of lack of fish in their own traditional fishing grounds,” Zubiri said. 

Kaya raw nananatiling mahirap ang mga Tausug sa Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and the other tribes in Basilan like the Yakans, is because wala na raw silang mga isda sa kanilang mga areas in the Sulu Sea,” he added. 

(The reason why the Tausugs of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and other tribes in Basilan like the Yakans remain poor is because they have nothing to fish anymore in their areas in the Sulu Sea.)

Zubiri said one way to “strike a balance” between the two issues is to allow the other provinces to fish in the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf, but only if they pay for a fishing license imposed by the Bangsamoro.

He said revenues from the said taxes may then be earmarked for social services for coastal communities in the Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf. –

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.