MILF still unhappy with status of draft law

 

MANILA, Philippines – What's the status of the draft law creating a new political entity in Mindanao?

On Thursday, July 24, President Benigno Aquino III met with members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) in a bid to bridge the gap between Malacañang's proposed revisions and the original version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which the commission drafted. 

In the meeting, Aquino called on members of the BTC to approach the drafting of the proposed law "with an open mind," urging both sides to put themselves "in each other's shoes," a media release from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) said. 

"I want to be able to push this (Bangsamoro Basic Law) with conviction," Aquino said. 

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has earlier accused Malacañang of diluting the draft that the BTC submitted for the President's review.

The drafting of the law is the second phase of the historic peace agreement signed 4 months ago by the Philippine government and the MILF, aimed at ending more than 4 decades of conflict in Muslim provinces in Mindanao. At stake is the future of a region torn by conflict but with so much potential for economic growth.

The heart of the agreement is the creation of an autonomous region – but this hinges on a law that Congress will pass and the results of a plebiscite that will come after.

In his 2013 State of the Nation Address (SONA) last year, President Aquino expressed the hope that the new law would be passed by the end of 2014.

But current problems in the process have made this timetable appear difficult to achieve.

Iqbal absent

In the Thursday meeting were Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles, the government peace panel led by chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and select cabinet members. 

A total of 12 out of the 14 current members of the BTC attended the meeting. One of the commissioners, Johaira Wahab, has already resigned from the post to assume her position in the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

However, the commission's chairperson Mohagher Iqbal, who also serves as the chief negotiator of the MILF, was not present at the meeting with Aquino.

Iqbal told Rappler he had to attend an "important meeting" with the MILF central committee at Camp Darapanan regarding crucial decision points that had to be addressed regarding ongoing discussions on the BBL. 

"It's not my choice but it was coincidental that the MILF also has a meeting. It was coincidental, a confluence of two situations. The consultation with the MILF leadership was very important, so, I was there," Iqbal said.

While both sides admit the chances are slim that a "mutually acceptable" draft law can be submitted to Congress right after Aquino's 2014 SONA on Monday, July 28 – the target deadline – neither side is turning away from the process. 

The panels are set to meet again before the SONA to try to arrive at a compromise, OPAPP said.

Diluted draft?

The 15-member BTC, created through Executive Order 120, was tasked to create the initial draft of the proposed law that will serve as the basis for the Bangsamoro political entity replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The MILF nominated 8 of the BTC members, including the chairperson, while the government nominated the rest. 

After the commission submitted its draft to the President, Iqbal accused Malacañang of "heavily" diluting it and in the process producing a proposed law that he said was worse than the law governing the ARMM. 

Under the final peace agreement, both sides agreed to submit the BTC draft of the BBL to Malacañang for review before it is submitted to Congress and certified as urgent by the President. 

The difficulties at the present stage of the process could be traced to an issue that has long hounded both sides. 

Since it started negotiating for a political settlement with the government, the MILF has long believed that the Constitution needs to be amended to ensure genuine autonomy in Mindanao. The Aquino administration, meanwhile, believes the final peace agreement can be implemented within the "flexibilities" of the Constitution. 

Flexibility and the Constitution

In an interview with Rappler on Friday, July 25, Iqbal said the government is too conservative in interpreting the Philippine Constitution in relation to the draft law. This, he said, was a departure from the statements made by the government panel throughout the negotiations that the signed agreements can be implemented within the "flexibilities" of the Constitution. 

"I don't know what's on their mind but we did not see the flexibility promised to us," Iqbal said without elaborating.

The envisioned Bangsamoro political entity is designed to have greater political powers and wider fiscal autonomy than the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

It will have a parliamentary form of government with at least 50 members elected by the people. The elected members, will, in turn, elect a chief minister among themselves. The exact composition of the form of government is expected to be defined in the BBL. 

The draft Bangsamoro law will also detail how the block grants for the Bangsamoro will be computed. This is a mechanism that would enable the proposed government to get automatic appropriations without having the need to get the approval of Congress every year – a potentially contentious provision since the Constitution states that the power of the purse is exclusive to Congress. 

Also potentially contentious is the issue on the legal definition of the term Bangsamoro, which, in the signed agreements, refers to both the place or territory, as well as the identity of the people. 

It also remains to be seen how the BBL would detail the composition of the police force for the Bangsamoro, as well as its relationship with the national police force. 

Iqbal refrained from qualifying the current state of negotiations as a deadlock. He said the process is just "on hold." 

"It's still moving forward. It's just a simple halt in the journey," Iqbal said.

After the Kuala Lumpur "workshop" on July 7 to July 11 and the Manila meeting from July 18 to July 21, Iqbal said they managed to finish 30% of the issues but substantial issues still remained unresolved. 

"But I can't estimate if this will not change because I observed that everything seems to be very tentative. We already finished the issues but then it can still be changed," Iqbal said. "But so far, out of our meetings from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, about 30% have been settled. The rest are subject to ongoing discussion but it's very tentative. We're not sure if there can still be changes."

Substantial issues

In a statement published on Luwaran, MILF's official website, on Friday, the MILF made clear its position on the issue: 

The MILF said:  "All those issues that are settled in the FAB [Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro] and its Annexes will not be subject for renegotiation" and "settled language in the FAB and its Annexes will not be subject for renegotiation."

It added: "In view of the wide disparity between the two positions of the two parties, finding an agreed version takes some time," the MILF said. 

Iqbal said the BTC draft was "faithful to the letter and spirit" of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) signed in October 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in March 2014. 

Before the FAB was signed, one of the last items that the panel had to resolve was on the matter of the police force. The MILF wanted a unique police force system in the Bangsamoro but the Constitution states that there should only be one police body. 

In the last few hours of crucial talks over the deal on how revenues will be shared between the Bangsamoro government and the national government, the panels were still negotiating how the Bangsamoro could get a greater share in resources in relation to the regalian doctrine in the Constitution, which states that all public lands and natural resources belong to the State.

Asked whether there might have been different interpretations of the content of the final peace agreement, Iqbal said: "The devil is in the details. But I don't think the interpretations are divergent. I can not imagine that but it appears that this is what's happening." 

"'Yung kalabaw hindi naman manganganak ng kabayo yan e, di ba?" Iqbal said. (A cow will not give birth to a horse, right?) 

Iqbal maintains that the BTC version of the BBL can be implemented within the flexibilities of the Constitution. 

"We (the BTC) assured ourselves that there is nothing unconstitutional there. Otherwise, we would have stricken it out. That's our view, that's our belief. That's why when we finished it, we signed it. We believe there is nothing unconstitutional there. It's just a matter of how do you flex, how do you stretch the Constitution. The BTC is officially saying there is nothing unconstitutional there. 

4 layers of engagement

During the review, Iqbal said Malacañang was remiss in engaging the transition commission in the process. 

There was supposed to have been 4 layers of engagement between the BTC and Malacañang, according to Iqbal. 

The first layer would be through BTC committee chairs, the next one through other members, then lawyers and special personalities, and finally, the highest would be between the two principals - Aquino and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. 

Iqbal said only the coordination between the principals happened. On June 24, Aquino sought a short meeting with Murad in Japan. At that time, a well-placed source said Aquino had yet to read the contents of the Basic Law. 

When Iqbal received a copy of the Malacañang revisions of the draft basic law on June 23 in Japan - two days after it was turned over to the BTC office - it was the first time he had a glimpse of the revisions.  

One month before the Malacañang revisions was finally turned over, Iqbal said Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr assured him that only 40% of the draft had been touched and none of those covered substantial parts. 

"So, I said, if these are just peripheral issues, it would be easy. It turned out, the substantial parts were also touched," Iqbal said. 

The situation could have been different had Malacañang engaged BTC sooner, according to Iqbal. 

"Had the engagement with the BTC occurred while they were trying to make the review, at least lots of issues could have been resolved. But that did not happen," Iqbal said. 

Iqbal refused to comment on what role OPAPP and the government peace panel played in the review process. 

When Iqbal returned to the Philippines from a series of forums overseas after the BTC received a copy of the Malacañang revisions, the BTC passed a resolution elevating the issue to the panels. It was signed by all 14 current members of the commission, hence the meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

In the resolution, the BTC said:

"The BTC strongly agrees to elevate the matter or process to the panels for clarification, discussion and resolution of issues that may have been affected by the revisions in the proposed BBL in the higher intterest of finding a lasting peaceful solution to the conflict in Mindanao."

"The BTC stands firm in its position that the proposed BBL must be consistent with the letter and spirit of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro." 

Congress

For the government, it is more ideal to resolve possible unconstitutional provisions at this stage of the process before the proposed law is submitted to Congress.  

After all, Congress would be free to introduce further changes in the measure. 

Asked for his reaction, Iqbal said he would rather focus on the immediate challenge ahead. 

"I do not want to comment on the actions of Congress. That's another matter. What I'm interested for is really the current engagement with the Office of the President and with the government peace panel," Iqbal said.  

He added: Kapag tumatakbo ka at may hurdles, ang iniisip mo malagpasan yung unang hurdle. 'Yun ang focus, ang magtagumpay sa unang hurdle. 

(If you are running and there are hurdles, you are focused on surpassing the first hurdle. That's your focus, to prevail on the first hurdle.)

Limit potential challenges

Aquino told the BTC during their Thursday meeting: “Let’s approach this [drafting of the proposed BBL] with an open mind, see if everything is consistent with the CAB [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro], and limit the potential challenges.”

Iqbal said the  challenge to be open applies both ways.  

"More on the government because they are the ones who really diluted the BBL crafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission. We are really practicing due dilligence. That's why even during fasting time, we met the government side in Kuala Lumpur and in Manila. And we are here and we are still fasting. The reasons for that is really we want to finish the process," Iqbal said. 

In terms of the timeline, Iqbal said the MILF still hopes to install the Bangsamoro political entity by 2016 before Aquino steps down from office. 

"Kailangang matapos (It has to be finished). There is no second option. Gagawin natin lahat ng pwedeng magawa (We will do what needs to be done). We want this process to be successful," Iqbal said. 

Under the final peace agreement signed after close to two decades of negotiations, the MILF agreed to decommission their troops and firearms in specific timeframes in parallel with the completion of corresponding political commitments, including the passage of the BBL, the creation of a transitional body, and finally, the creation of the Bangsamoro government. - Rappler.com