MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Tensions flared as senators and representatives deliberated on the final version of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) two weeks before President Rodrigo Duterte was expected to sign the measure.
The bicameral conference committee began on Monday, July 9, and is expected to be finished by Friday, July 13. But two days in, lawmakers have yet to agree on the most crucial issue: territorial jurisdiction and plebiscite.
With a landmark legislation expected to end the years-long struggle in Mindanao, it was no surprise that discussions in just two days were marked by tension, and heightened passion and emotions.
On Tuesday, July 10, a visibly tired Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri faced the media around 9 pm. The bicam had been working from 9 am to past 11 pm for the past two days.
“Naku initan – nagkakainitan kanina amongst the panels: the House members, even the Senate, even pati ako I got frustrated with some of our panel members mostly. Medyo mainit sa loob pagdating sa diskusyon ng mga provisions ng Bangsamoro Basic Law," Zubiri said.
(Things are heating up. There are heated debates amongst the panels: the House members, even the Senate, even I got frustrated with some of our panel members mostly. It's a heated discussion on the provisions of the Bangsamoro Basic Law).
"Again, as I said, any decision we make here, lives could be at stake. The peace process could be at stake. This is no laughing matter,” he added.
Turning serious and at one point teary-eyed, Zubiri went on to say it was the most difficult piece of legislation he had ever handled in his 16 years in Congress.
“The pressure is on….May anti-BBL sa panel, may pro-BBL katulad namin…. mahirap (There are anti-BBL lawmakers in the panel, pro-BBL like us. It's difficult). That's why if you can see, I’m very stressed,” said Zubiri, who hails from Mindanao.
To say that deliberations in the bicam is difficult is an understatement. Isabela 1st District Representative Rodolfo Albano III voiced this sentiment out loud. While walking the wide halls of a Pasig hotel, he was heard repeatedly saying – loud enough for everyone to take notice – that he was having a headache, and that the BBL bicam was the “most difficult” bicam he had ever attended.
Mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief negotiator and chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, confirmed there were indeed passionate debates and raised voices.
“As to whether there are some high tensions, that's part of the process. That's normal among them. Maybe sa atin na hindi legislators, ang tingin natin medyo unusual (Maybe for us who are not legislators, we find it unusual). Sa kanila (But to them), that's ordinary, normal to them. That's how I see it,” Iqbal said, as he remained positive that the final outcome would hew closely to the BTC version.
Raised voices, intense debates
On the first night of discussions, several sources inside the closed-door hall said there was a heated argument on the issue of Bangsamoro waters between Zamboanga City 1st District Representative Celso Lobregat, who is anti-BBL; and Maguindanao 1st District Representative Bai Sandra Sema and Tawi-Tawi Representative Ruby Sahali.
The House and Senate versions have provisions granting jurisdiction over Bangsamoro waters, which include the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf.
Lobregat strongly opposed this, saying there are many non-Bangsamoro areas whose coastlines form part of the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf. Lobregat proposed that only intra-regional transport routes should be covered and not the entire waters.
Sahali argued that the people of Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi travel frequently to Zamboanga City. Lobregat said in reply that it was already an inter-regional route and not just within Bangsamoro. Sema supported Sahali.
In the end, the bicam decided to shelve the issue for a later discussion.
On Tuesday afternoon, there was a long discussion on the number of members of the Bangsamoro Parliament.
Under the Senate version, the parliament will have 80 members unless the latter sets another fixed number. The House, meanwhile, wants at least 80 members.
In the subgroups – mechanisms to expedite the deliberation process – members, including Senator Francis Escudero, changed the provision to say “at least 80 members or a number to be fixed by Congress" instead of parliament.
Sahali and Sema reportedly did not take this sitting down and motioned for the adoption of the House version.
The session was briefly suspended to settle the issue. In the end, lawmakers agreed to drop “at least,” setting the number of members to 80, unless increased by Congress.
Zubiri told reporters this was done to ensure that the Bangsamoro Parliament would not reach 300 or more members. The parliament would be composed of 50% party representatives, 40% district representatives, and 10% sectoral representatives.
Fariñas, the intervener
On Tuesday night, Lobregat, Sahali, and Sema had a heated exchange on the use of the term “settlers” to refer to non-Moro and non-indigenous people residing in the Bangsamoro region.
Lobregat told reporters he pushed to change “settlers” to “non-Moro.”
Sahali and Sema argued that the term is used in history and that there is “no derogatory meaning there.”
Passions flared during the debate, reportedly prompting House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas to step in. In the end, Lobregat said he gave in to what the two wanted.
“Sabi nila historical fact. In the end, sige, kung ayaw 'nyo, 'di wag (They said it's a historical fact. In the end, I told them, fine, if you don't want to change it, then don't),” Lobregat said.
It turns out that in the middle of arguments, Fariñas would act as the mediator. Zubiri said Fariñas’ non-Mindanaoan status helped in easing tensions.
“I thank [Majority Leader] Fariñas, talagang magnanimous, nakikita niya as outsider (he's really magnanimous and he sees things as an outsider) and he’s able to temper expectations, temper also our passions, and able to keep the situation under control,” Zubiri said.
Can Duterte work his magic on territory, plebiscite?
With no agreement on the territorial jurisdiction and plebiscite in sight, it would not be surprising if louder voices would be heard in the bicam halls in the coming days.
The two issues are so contentious that the panel even had to seek President Rodrigo Duterte’s help to break the impasse.
They could not agree among themselves on the inclusion of 6 towns in Lanao del Norte and 39 barangays in North Cotabato in the Bangsamoro region. District representatives are strongly opposed to it.
"It will involve some political decisions and the President being the highest political officer would have to decide, if there is a deadlock on this issue and politically, since he is the President, he may have to make a political decision to resolve the deadlock," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said on Wednesday, July 11when asked why the panel sought Duterte's guidance.
Zubiri said the issue is "personal" to district representatives, as they are worried they would lose territory.
Among the members of the bicam against it are Lanao del Norte 1st District Representative Mohamad Dimaporo and Lanao del Norte 2nd District Representative Abdullah Dimaporo.
It’s an uphill battle because the issue has no middle ground.
“May uuwing luhaan on this issue (Someone would go home in tears on the issue). It’s just managing the outcome,” Zubiri admitted.
Under the Senate and House versions, 6 Lanao del Norte towns and 39 North Cotabato barangays (villages) shall vote on whether or not they want to be included in the proposed Bangsamoro state.
The two versions, however, differ on the mode of plebiscite. In the Senate version, they will be automatically included in the Bangsamoro once their residents vote in favor of inclusion.
The House version wants the mother units of the said areas to decide on their fate. In the case of the 6 towns of Lanao del Norte, the whole province must vote whether or not they want the towns out of their jurisdiction. For the 39 barangays, the municipalities they belong to have the final say on their fate.
Residents of these areas had twice voted for their inclusion in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the proposed BBL seeks to replace. But because of the double layer of voting needed, they have not succeeded.
Zubiri said if the Bangsamoro people's wish would not be granted, it could lead to another problem: the breakdown of peace talks.
"Kasi may (You see, there are) possible scenarios and outcomes. It could cause problems if we do not address it carefully. Security issues, yeah. We do not want to make our partners walk away from the table in the peace talks. We do not want that to happen. It's quite a sensitive issue," he said.
Iqbal, for his part, refused to discuss such topics while the BBL negotiations are ongoing.
With this deadlock on a crucial matter, all eyes are now on Duterte to see if he indeed could work his magic. After all, the BBL could be one of the shining moments of his 3rd State of the Nation Address, and his administration, for that matter. – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org