MANILA, Philippines – Mindanao's first president was able to deliver one major promise to his home region: the passage of a Bangsamoro law and the creation of a new region hoped to end decades of violence.
On February 22, President Rodrigo Duterte finally formed the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), kickstarting the process of governing the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
The BTA will serve as the region's interim government from 2019 to 2022, when its people will elect new leaders.
The formation of the BTA is an accomplishment that comes nearly halfway into Duterte's term as president. It's a definite feather in his cap, but one built upon achievements of past administrations as well. (READ: TIMELINE: From peace talks to plebiscite: The road to the new Bangsamoro region)
Duterte appreciated the significance of the moment.
"The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is not just a fulifllment of a campaign promise. It will be the realization of our collective desire. It will be the realization of all our dreams and end long decades of armed struggle," he said in his speech.
His speech itself indicated Duterte's special regard for the ceremony. He kept it short, and more notably, stuck to the topic of the Bangsamoro region. In other ceremonies, Duterte would typically speak briefly on the topic at hand before launching into long extemporaneous remarks about his drug war, corruption, or his critics.
In the ceremonial signing of the universal health care law on Wednesday, February 20, for instance, Duterte could not help but bring up his campaign against narcotics.
But on Friday night, his thoughts were only on the fledgling region he had helped form.
"The road to peace may be long and rough but I am glad we have finally reached its endpoint. My only hope is that we put to rest the bitter memories of the past so we can build a new region that is bound, not be ethnic or religious affiliation, but by common aspiration for peaceful co-existence among our fellow Filipinos," said Duterte.
As a 2016 presidential candidate, Duterte had promised to support the passage of a Bangsamoro law, basically to continue where the Aquino administration had left off.
As the then-Bangsamoro Basic Law was being deliberated in Congress in 2015, 44 Special Action Forces troopers were killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The clash had another casualty. BBL deliberations were delayed because of the tragedy, ultimately ending in the non-passage of the law before the 2016 campaign period.
BOL deliberations were also fraught with obstacles. Duterte involved himself.
He also made sure to separately meet with Nur Misuari, leader of another Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front, so he would not feel left out.
Deviating slightly from his written speech, Duterte recalled these meetings.
"I am overwhelmingly proud that you took our word for it in the so many late meetings we had, in my place, in your place, just to talk about how to craft this new law," he said.
Lawmakers credit Duterte for smoothing out key impasses that threatened to further delay the BOL's passage.
It was a challenge to keep worries at bay, especially worries of the MILF given their long wait and struggle for a Bangsamoro law.
Duterte alluded to MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad's worries during the critical homestretch in BOL deliberations.
"Sige sila pabalik-balik. Diskumpiyado sila. Sabi ko, 'I'm giving you my word.' Hindi niya alam, gabi-gabi naga-usap ako kina Sotto pati kay Zubiri, pushing it. 'Sige mapahiya tayo nito. You want trouble again?'" said Duterte on February 11.
(They kept on going back. They were not confident. I said, "I'm giving you my word." He didn't know that every night, I talked to Sotto and Zubiri, pushing it. 'We'll get embarrassed. You want trouble again?'")
"Kaya ito, nangyari na. May BOL, natupad. Si Murad, okay na siya, kuntento (So here, it's happened. We have the BOL, it was fulfilled. Murad is okay, he's content)," added the President, himself sounding relieved.
Delays 'til the end
Delays in fact hounded the whole effort up to the oathtaking ceremony of BTA officials.
Duterte admitted that he was late by two hours for the event because some names were being added and exchanged in the list of appointees.
"Kaya ako late, may hinabol sila, may inexchange (That's why I was late. They had to rush in some names, to be exchanged.)," he told reporters after the ceremony.
The event itself was also originally set to take place on Wednesday, February 20, at 5 pm. These were the initial event details relayed to MILF members, including peace panel implementing chairman Mohagher Iqbal.
But on Tuesday, February 19, guests at the event were told the gathering was moved to Friday. No reason was given for the changes.
Prominent Bangsamoro advocates credit Duterte for the BOL's ratification, and ultimately, the formation of a new Bangsamoro government.
"Thank you for your strong leadership and compassionate heart for the Bangsamoro people," said Chief Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez in his speech.
Murad and former ARMM governor Mujiv Hataman (who will also be a BTA member until June 30, 2019) both spoke of Duterte in the same vein.
But the formation of the BTA is only the start of another long process, and one that will pose yet another challenge to the Duterte administration.
Photo by Martin San Diego
The BTA will govern the new region during the last half of Duterte's presidency. It will also be governing a region under Duterte's martial law.
Will Murad and the rest of the BTA successfully shepherd the BARMM during its transition? When Duterte ends his presidency in 2022, will he be leaving behind a BARMM well on its way to prosperity or a BARMM that will be labeled another "failed experiment"?
There are still many uncertainties, but there are great hopes too. Duterte has united Mindanao like no other president has done before. He and Murad have given the Bangsamoro people reason to expect better things to come. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.