Proposed Bangsamoro law still in limbo

Angela Casauay

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Proposed Bangsamoro law still in limbo
(2nd UPDATE) President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim will meet again on the proposed law as the government and the MILF struggle to settle key differences

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – After a 4-day workshop between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the final version of the draft law that will serve as the legal basis of a new autonomous government in the Southern Philippines remains in limbo.

Government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement on Monday, July 21, that there continues to be “significant points of difference between the parties” after 4 days of discussions on the proposed measure in Manila that ended that day.

In view of the situation, President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim are set to meet again following their surprise meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, the MILF said in its official website Luwaran. The date and time of the meeting has yet to be announced. 

Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said in a news briefing that the planned meeting between the President and the MILF chief is hoped to thresh out prevailing differences between the government and the MILF on the BBL.

“If the meeting pushes through, then it will give an opportunity for both leaders to thresh out the issues and concerns that are being brought forward, and hopefully that will lead to a meeting of the minds between them,” Coloma said. 

Aquino had earlier said that he wants the Bangsamoro Basic Law to be submitted to Congress in time for the opening of its second regular session on July 28.

But with the panels’ failure to arrive at a compromise during the Manila workshop, Ferrer told reporters on Monday that the submission of the bill “most likely” would not happen next week. 

However, stakeholders can still expect Aquino to endorse the Bangsamoro basic law in his speech. 

“The position of the president that this is an important bill, this is going to be an important bill for him remains. And he will say something about this, reiterate how important this is to him during the SONA. But the actual submission of the bill might not happen next week. Well, most likely, won’t happen next week,” Ferrer said. 

Government peace panel members said the timeline for Congress to pass the proposed law by the end of 2014 remains but they did not provide a definite schedule on when the final version of the bill will be submitted to Congress. 

Government panel member Senen Bacani told reporters it is better to have a “mutually acceptable” law than to rush its submission. 

Delays in the submission of the final draft further constricts the timeline of the Bangsamoro peace roadmap. The MILF wants the basic law to be passed as soon as possible to give the MILF-led transitional body at least one year to lead the transition from the ARMM to the Bangsamoro before Aquino steps down from office in 2016. 

‘BBL must be constitutional’

At the heart of ongoing discussions is the constitutionality of the draft Bangsamoro law – an issue that has hounded both parties since negotiations began under the Aquino administration.  

The government has remained firm that the Bangsamoro basic law (BBL) must fall within the boundaries of the Constitution. The MILF meanwhile, has long believed that there is a need to amend the Constitution to entrench real autonomy in Mindanao. 

Under the historic final peace agreement signed on March 27, the 15-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) was tasked to draft the proposed law, which will be submitted to the Office of the President for review then certified as urgent by the President upon its submission to Congress. 

Once Congress passes the measure, people will vote to approve or reject the basic law, as well as vote whether to join or opt out of the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity.  

Due to the agreed process, the government wants to ensure that the draft law is constitutional before it even goes to Congress to minimize the chances of being questioned in court. 

Ferrer said that from the outset, “it was very clear” that the proposed law “will pass through regular legislation in Congress and therefore must fall within the parameters of the Constitution.”

“We have been trying to stretch these parameters to accommodate the ideas that have been put in the BBL, in addition to what have been put in the signed documents. But it is very clear we cannot overstep the boundaries of the Constitution,” she said.

Ferrer said that while the BTC was given the mandate to propose constitutional amendments, these recommendations cannot be accommodated in the draft law which has to be crafted based on the provisions of the existing Constitution.

“The BTC has been given the mandate to recommend changes in the Constitution all those ideas that could not be accommodated now under this Constitution. But the BBL must necessarily be constitutional,” Ferrer said. 

Ferrer earlier told Rappler the BTC version of the draft law did not include proposals for constitutional amendments – one of the functions given to the MILF-dominated body under Executive Order 120.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told Mindanews that lots of issues were left unsettled during the Manila workshop but declined to disclose what these were. 

The panels earlier met in Kuala Lumpur shortly after the MILF chief negotiator, who also wears another hat as the chairperson of the BTC, accused the government of “heavily diluting” the BTC version of the draft law. 

Iqbal, in a statement made in a peace forum in Turkey, said the Malacañang version of the draft law was worse than Republic Act 9054 or the ARMM Organic Act.

Unresolved issues 

Both parties have yet to disclose specific provisions delaying the finalization of the draft law.

“I know it would be easier to understand, but it’s hard to start citing the specific provisions because ethically it may not be proper at this point,” Bacani said. 

Ferrer, meanwhile, sought to assure the MILF that the government’s insistence on producing a basic law that is constitutional “does not mean key features that will distinguish the ARMM from the Bangsamoro are not being put forward in the draft law.”

Ferrer said these key features include the parliamentary form of government; a parliament with more than 50 members made up of district, party list and reserved seats; an autonomous government that will enjoy high fiscal autonomy; and a transition arrangement where the MILF’s brand of leadership will be tested.

Ferrer earlier told Rappler the issues on additional taxes and how the formula on block grants would be implemented were discussed anew at the earlier Kuala Lumpur workshop.  

Unlike the ARMM, the Bangsamoro political entity is designed to enjoy automatic appropriations, which means that instead of having to go to Congress to seek approval of its annual budget, it would instead enjoy block grants that will be computed through a formula to be provided under the basic law. 

The specific formula for the automatic appropriations was one of the issues that was left to the BTC to resolve before the final peace agreement can be signed. 

The 97-page draft submitted by the BTC to Malacañang was not released to the public. Ferrer earlier said only the final version of the draft Bangsamoro law will be released to the public. 

“It’s not going to be healthy (if the initial versions) are released. Anybody with an agenda can use it against any party,” Ferrer said. 

Historical baggage  

The risk of the draft law being questioned before the high court is nothing new to both the government and the MILF.

A breakaway faction of the MILF launched attacks against civilian communities when the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA AD) between the Arroyo government and the MILF in 2008. 

History is also a witness to the effects of passing a basic law that is seen to be a watered down version of the final peace agreement. 

For instance, the MILF’s rival group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) remains adamant that the government has yet to fully implement the final peace pact signed in 1996.  No less than the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an influential Muslim body, has called on the parties to bridge the gap between the recently-signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, as well as earlier agreements signed between the government and the MNLF. 

Misunderstandings between the two peace processes led to the MNLF siege of Zamboanga in September 2013

As far as the current peace process with the MILF is concerned, Ferrer has an appeal to the MILF.

“We understand the apprehensions of people who have long fought the government and now entering a new stage where they can actually participate in the government. But what we want is a mutually acceptable draft as the two panels have agreed to accomplish. We ask the MILF to reflect on how we can arrive at this,” she said.  

“We believe with reason and goodwill, we will overcome this current difficulty,” she added.

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