Bangsamoro Agreement: A great day for the country

Dean Tony La Viña, Pauleen Gorospe

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The signing of the CAB is only an initial step in the process of peacemaking and peacebuilding, but a significant step nonetheless

After 17 years of negotiations, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have finally agreed on a Comprehensive Agreement for the establishment of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro.

The road to peace has not been easy; the talks have been riddled with setbacks. But every time both parties returned to the negotiating table, hope was renewed they would come to an agreement and end the armed struggle that has endured for more than 4 decades.

The struggle of the MILF started when it broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) after the latter signed the 1976 Tripoli Agreement with the government, paving the way for the formation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). At the time, the MILF was pushing for independence, and the semi-autonomous status of the ARMM was considered unacceptable.

After years of engaging in armed struggle, the MILF finally agreed to a general cessation of hostilities in 1997, recognizing, along with the government, that to bring lasting peace to Mindanao, the peace talks must resume. This was, however, overturned by the government under the administration of former president Joseph Estrada, who declared an “all-out war” against the MILF. In turn, the MILF reciprocated with attacks and a declaration of jihad. 

An attempt was made by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to broker a ceasefire with the MILF and come to an agreement, the highlight of which was the 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). But this was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Violence again broke out and the peace talks were stalled momentarily.

In 2010, the MILF withdrew its demand for independence and announced that it could settle for a substate in Mindanao. Thereafter, President Benigno Aquino III and MILF Peace Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal met in Narita, Japan in August 2011 to discuss the resumption of the peace talks. The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) was signed on Oct 15, 2012. It formalized the agreement between the government and the MILF that the ARMM would be replaced by the Bangsamoro.

The FAB outlined the territorial jurisdiction of the new autonomous political entity, which is envisioned to be larger than the ARMM and would still be subject to plebiscite. It contained provisions on natural resource extraction and wealth sharing, fiscal autonomy, normalization, the deployment of a local police force and the administration of Shari’ah law for Muslims.

In November 2012, the government (GPH) and the MILF peace panels convened the technical working group on Normalization. Shortly afterwards, President Aquino initiated the creation of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission which is tasked to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The annexes to the FAB were signed on separate occasions in February, July and December 2013. The final Annex on Normalization was signed on Jan 25, 2014, thus paving the way for the finalization of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

The Annexes to the FAB provide the specific mechanisms for the institutionalization of governance in the Bangsamoro. The Annex on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities provides for the creation of a Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) once the Basic Law is signed. This would repeal Republic Act (RA) 9054 or the Expanded Organic Act for the ARMM. The BTA would prepare for the transition to a ministerial form of government in the Bangsamoro. It shall be led by the MILF. The BTA will also serve as the interim government of the Bangsamoro until the expected election of its officials in 2016.

The Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing expands the sources of revenue of the Bangsamoro to include a share in the exploration, development and utilization of natural resources in its territory. The sharing for natural resources is specified, particularly for fossil fuels and uranium, non-metallic resources and metallic resources, as opposed to the vaguely defined “strategic minerals” in the ARMM Organic Act. The share in tax revenues has been increased from the Organic Act’s 70% to the current agreement’s 75%. 

Block grant

A significant departure in the Annex from the current arrangement between the central government and the ARMM is the allocation of funds to the Bangsamoro via a block grant and special development funds. This would eliminate the need for the Bangsamoro government to seek approval for their budget from the central government.

The block grant is intended to be automatically disbursed to the Bangsamoro every year. The Annex does not specify the amount, the formula or the sourcing, but it stipulates that the amount shall not be less than the ARMM budget before the establishment of the BTA.

Revenues from the exploration, development and utilization of natural resources, as well as taxes, will be deducted from the block grant. It will also be subject to audit, though the Annex provides for the creation of a Bangsamoro auditing body, which would perform its functions without prejudice to the authority of the Commission on Audit.

The Annex on Power Sharing delineates the powers and functions that will be devolved to the Bangsamoro government. Powers devolved to the ARMM will be placed under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro. This includes the administration of agriculture; economic and cultural exchange; loans and credits, except those requiring sovereign guarantee; trade, industry and investment; labor employment and occupation; budgeting; education and skills training; health; Hajj and Umrah matters; ancestral domain and natural resources; the protection of the rights of the indigenous peoples in the Bangsamoro; waste management; land management, land distribution, and agricultural land use reclassification; and Shari’ah courts and Shari’ah justice system.

The Annex on Normalization includes the creation of a police force for the Bangsamoro which shall be civilian in character. An Independent Commission on Policing (ICP) will be organized to provide recommendations for the appropriate policing in the Bangsamoro. Both peace panels will engage in a consultative process that will create a system of appointment, employment and deployment of units or elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) to the Bangsamoro.

The PNP will recommend candidates for the head of the police force. A Joint Normalization Committee will be formed to coordinate the way towards normalization, while an Independent Decommissioning Body will oversee the decommissioning of the MILF forces and weapons. A Joint Peace and Security Committee and Joint Peace and Security Teams will maintain peace and order on the ground, the proper observance of ceasefire agreements, the reduction and control of weapons and materiel and the documenting of private armies.

The AFP will also be redeployed to avoid a security vacuum in the Bangsamoro. Members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces will undergo a skills and needs assessment to determine the necessary processes for normalization.

Critical issues

Though the negotiations and the crafting of the Comprehensive Agreement was completed fairly quickly and the process itself enjoys wider support compared to that of the defunct MOA-AD, there are still a few things that require discernment, elaboration and decision, especially in the drafting of the Basic Law.

The Ateneo School of Government (ASOG), along with the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, has written a 4-part monograph* on critical issue areas in the drafting and implementation of the Law, particularly in the territorial jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro, fiscal autonomy, the institution of police powers for the Bangsamoro police force, and the administration of Shari’ah law. In the monographs, the ASOG and its contributing writers drew attention to the following considerations:

The transition must take into consideration the welfare and rights of the Bangsamoro, the indigenous peoples and non-Muslim inhabitants of the new autonomous region. There are fears of “reverse oppression” due to lack of awareness of the entire process, but there is evidence on the ground that cooperation and harmonious coexistence is not only possible, it is also widespread.

Careful study should also be devoted to the results of the plebiscite and what will be included in the Bangsamoro territory. Provisions on the sharing of power, the deployment of the local police force and revenue generation and wealth-sharing are all dependent on the geographical scope of the Bangsamoro. It must be clear in which cases and matters Shari’ah law will be applicable, while the expansion of courts must also be considered to address the needs of the Bangsamoro people. It is important to involve local officials and religious and community leaders on the ground to facilitate any form of transition of management and form of government and avoid any misunderstandings about the establishment of the Bangsamoro.

In the Bangsamoro Basic Law, there should be specific language explaining where the block grant will be sourced, how the amount is determined and by which processes it should be disbursed. Will it have the same characteristics as the Internal Revenue Allotment for local government units? How will the special development funds be disbursed and accounted for? How will the automatic allocation of the block grant take into account inflation rates, population growth rate and other social and economic indicators? The formula for the block grant must have basis but at the same time be flexible enough to make room for the exercise of fiscal autonomy and economic developments in the Bangsamoro.

The Basic Law must also be clear about the composition of the local police force. It should address the constitutional requirement for a single, national police force that is civilian in character. If a local police force is formed in the Bangsamoro, who is it accountable to (the Bangsamoro government or the Chief of the PNP or, ultimately, the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government)?

Normalization processes must also be fleshed out properly as the successful re-assimilation of MILF combatants into civil society requires more than just disarmament. It entails re-socialization into a civilian way of life. The skills and needs assessment would be central to the success of this process.

The signing of the CAB is only an initial step in the process of peacemaking and peacebuilding, but a significant step nonetheless. The government, the MILF, lawmakers and stakeholders alike must ensure that it is not derailed and that it specifically addresses and fulfills the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people.

Today is a good day for Mindanao, a great day for the country. –

*The contributors to the ASOG monograph series entitled, “Mindanao Horizons” are Dean Antonio La Viña and Ms. Pauleen Gorospe for territorial jurisdiction and fiscal autonomy issues, Mr Rommel Banlaoi for police powers, and Mr Raison Arobinto for the administration of Shari’ah law.

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