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A year after peace deal signing: Prospects for Bangsamoro law

 

MANILA, Philippines – What a difference a year makes. 

Exactly a year ago in Malacañang, euphoria marked the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that was 17 years in the making. 

In Kalayaan Grounds, some 500 MILF rebels trooped to the Palace in busloads to witness the event. Onstage, the backdrop was dominated by paper doves encircling the emblem of the President.

There was renewed sense of hope that peace was within reach. Back then, it seemed that the greatest hurdle to the next stage of the peace process - the passage of the proposed law based on the peace deal in Congress and ratification in a plebiscite - was the persistent issue on constitutionality

No one could have anticipated the Mamasapano tragedy that has turned the peace process around. 

In the aftermath, the trust and approval ratings of President Benigno Aquino III, whom proponents of the Bangsamoro Basic Law had counted on to rally support for its passage, has sunk to an all-time low. At the Senate, the committee report on the Mamasapano debacle was unforgiving to Aquino, the MILF and the peace process as a whole. At the House of Representatives, about 100 lawmakers clamored to reopen investigations on the incident as the Bangsamoro bill faces dilution in another committee. 

Scenarios 

Despite the challenges, peace panels of the government and the MILF have reiterated that they are not giving up on the fight for the passage of a good Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress under the Aquino administration. (READ: Is it time for Plan B for the peace process?)

But with time running out as the 2016 election nears, some peace observers have proposed pursuing ways to proceed with the peace process beyond the Aquino administration. 

Former government chief peace negotiator Jesus Dureza wrote in Mindanews

"I am of the view that if the conditions today are not conducive to pass an acceptable BBL, it  may be best to wait for better times and not force the issue now, lest the consequence may be dire and irreversible," Dureza said.  

For Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña, there is still time and BBL proponents should take advantage of the window to pass the law up to June. 

La Viña said parties involved should continue pushing for an improved version of the law and reassess the political climate when the June deadline arrives.  

"It's all about politics. If the President is able to change the situation – he said (the other day) that he will make announcements in the next few weeks about pushing for the peace process – then yes, we should push for the BBL right now. But if the politics doesn't change, it might be better to leave this to the next administration, where there could a better chance of passing a good law," La Viña said. 

"If they can not get a good law, why will you replace the ARMM with something even worse or weaker than the ARMM?" he added.

Amid the political fallout that has eroded support for the BBL, Congress is carrying the responsibility of ensuring that the BBL would stand legal scrutiny.  

Some constitutional experts, including former Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza, have called the BBL unconstitutional for creating a substate, while the original framers of the 1987 Constitutional have come out with a statement supporting the constitutionality of the measure. 

The proposed law seeks to create a parliamentary form of autonomous government that is designed to have more teeth than the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. 

Due to legal questions, the House of Representatives is set to delete what it believes are unconstitutional provisions, including those creating branches of the auditing, civil service, human rights and elections bodies for the Bangsamoro.  

But the MILF has said that it would be better for Congress not to pass the law at all if it would mean passing a watered down version of measure.  

In a Wednesday, March 25, interfaith forum in Cagayan de Oro, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal gave assurances that the rebel group would not disengage from the peace process no matter what happens to the BBL, Mindanews reported.

Protect the CAB

While most discussions are centered on the fate of the BBL, La Viña said protecting the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) must also be considered.

"It is a very good agreement, a great achievement – enough for this administration that you can leave the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law to the next administration.  In the end, that's what they might have to do," La Viña said. 

"You have to protect the CAB. It the BBL is passed, then next administration might not even honor it because they feel like they don't own the process. They can say it's only for Aquino and not the nation. At least you give the next administration a major part of completing the agreement and then they will feel ownership," he added. 

How constitutional issues would play out in relation to the political climate should also be considered, according to La Viña. 

"Before Mamasapano, you can imagine Aquino had more influence on Congress. If BBL was passed by 90% of the Senate or the House, the SC will have a hard time voting against it. They can be considered as the roadblock. They can ask themselves 'Are we doing the right thing?' Now, they don't have to consider that. I don't think they will be restrained," La Viña said.  

With varied opinions on the legality of the bill, even the peace panels anticipate that the law would be questioned in court no matter what comes out from Congress.

"One consideration is if there's a case filed before the SC questioning constitutionally, legality of the BBL, the case that will be filed will involve also the CAB. If that happens and the CAB is declared unconstitutional, then we are back to zero. The peace process can survive having no BBL but it can not survive the CAB being unconstitutional," La Viña said.  

BBL only one part of the process

Alistair Macdonald, chair of the Third Party Monitoring Team on the Bangsamoro peace deal, said stakeholders should not forget that the BBL is only one part of the peace process. 

Despite the volatile political climate, Macdonald said the CAB - if taken as a whole - still gives "the best prospect for peace" in Mindanao. 

Under the peace deal between the government and the MILF, the establishment of the Bangsamoro autonomous region – to be implemented through the passage of the BBL - would entail a counterpart staggered decommisioning of firearms on the side of the MILF.

All these will be done in parallel with the gradual redeployment of government armed forces in the area, as well as the creation of socio-economic programs for the return of combatants to the mainstream.

"The BBL is only one part of the process, the process of legislation establishing the whole set up of the Bangsamoro," Macdonald said. 

"All of that needs to be seen as a whole to be able to move forward on that basis and seize this opportunity for peace for the Philippines," he added. – Rappler.com