MANILA, Philippines – The fate of the Mindanao peace process hangs on the final version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which will be decided by a Congress bicameral conference committee in July.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is seeking to restore provisions deleted by lawmakers during the debates. Meanwhile, chief presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza is calling on everyone to "manage expectations."
At a BBL forum held on Thursday, June 7, MILF vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar was swinging from optimism to pessimism and back again.
"I'd like to declare here that change is coming to the Bangsamoro," Jaafar said in his opening speech, promising "fiscal autonomy," "empowerment," and "economic development" under the new region.
Jaafar's mood changed later when government officials explained that the draft of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), which he chairs, cannot be restored in its entirety.
"We are revolutionaries. We are not trained to talk much, but we are trained to do more," Jaafar said in front of an audience that included Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
'No BBL, no decommissioning'
The law that will create a new and more powerful Bangsamoro region to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a government commitment to the MILF in a peace deal signed in 2014 – the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).
In exchange for the new region, the MILF committed to decommission its troops and end the decades-long armed struggle. The rebel group will instead create a political party and participate in governing the new region.
"If there is no BBL, there is no decommissioning [of troops]," said MILF vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar, who also serves as chairman of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) that prepared the original BBL draft.
It can't be any BBL. Jaafar said they want "all the provisions retained" to make sure that the law complies with government commitments in the peace deal.
But Tawi-Tawi Representative Ruby Sahali said it's impossible. "The 'bicam' cannot do major amendments. It's either the Senate version or the Congress version," said Sahali.
Senate or House version?
Jaafar frowned upon the proposed law that passed the Senate. "Maraming (There are many) amendments sa (in the) Senate. I think it's over 100. We raised objections to some of those amendments when we were at the Senate," Jaafar said.
Among the significant amendment in the Senate is the deletion of a section listing the reserved powers of the national government, effectively removing the Bangsamoro region's power over all other areas not on the list.
Can the MILF work with the version of the House of Representatives, which also introduced amendments but fewer than the Senate?
"That is a hypothetical question. We will answer that when proper time comes," said Jaafar.
The House version allowed only one plebiscite for towns and provinces to join the new Bangsamoro region, rejecting BTC's intent to hold regular plebiscite within 25 years.
Both lowered the Bangsamoro region's annual block grant or its share of the national internal revenue from the proposed 6% or P72 billion to 5% or P59 billion.
The MILF held a meeting on June 5, where they decided not to issue any statement until the law is passed on July 23 – in time for President Rodrigo Duterte's 3rd State of the Nation Address (SONA).
"We decided not to issue specific position vis-a-vis the situation now because the process is still continuing. It's not final," said Jaafar.
Supreme Court and plebiscite, too
The final version should not only be acceptable to the MILF but also to the Supreme Court and the people who will vote to accept or reject the new Bangsamoro region.
This is the difficult balancing act that the members of the bicameral committee will need to make. (READ: Bicam members: Who will finalize the Bangsamoro law?)
Sahali maintained that certain provisions in the BTC draft had to be removed to avoid the fate of the peace process during the Arroyo administration, when the High Court declared the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as unconstitutional.
"Congress cannot pass a law that is unconstitutional. Let's not take that lightly," Dureza said, too.
The BBL will also be subjected to a referendum. The people will have to agree to replace ARMM with the new region or everything could go to waste.
"We realize the process of legislation but the interest of the Bangsamoro cannot be taken for granted. If people reject that in a plebiscite, what can we do?" said Jaafar.
There is frustration among the people, especially with the Senate version. (READ: Bangsamoro region 'lesser than ARMM' feared)
"We explain to them that the process is still continuing. The BTC continues its engagement in a bicameral and individual lawmakers, leadership of the house and the senate, and executive department," said Jaafar.
Jaafar said they also need a CAB-compliant BBL to be able to persuade members of local armed groups like the Maute Group and MILF breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to abandon the violence. (READ: AFP chief welcomes BBL passage as 'antidote to terrorism')
"How can we convince them if the BBL is inutile?" said Jaafar. Frustrations over the long delayed peace process are believed to have allowed the Maute Group to recruit fighters from MILF clans to join the siege of Marawi in 2017. (READ: MILF, Maute Group battle for legitimacy)
Dureza said it is important that all stakeholders help in managing their own expectations and the people on the ground.
"We should not raise too much expectations but I'm sure the public and the greater table will welcome whatever headway we will have," said Dureza.
"We are working towards very compliant BBL, close as much as possible to the CAB. It's a signed agreement. But remember there are parameters also to deal with. Constitutional parameters are also important," Dureza said.
The peace process is at another critical point, requirng a compromise from all sides.
"I see a better light at the end of the tunnel," Dureza said when the panel discussion was heating up. He turned to Jaafar and held his arm.
Jaafar forced a smile. "Let's hope for the best," he said. – Rappler.com
Top photo: MINDANAO PEACE. The peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front seeks to end decades-long conflict in Mindanao. File photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler.com