PEACETALK: In essence, this Bill is an instrument of social justice, a tool to rectify historical injustices

(Basilan Rep. Jim Hataman-Salliman, one of the vice chairs in the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law delivered this sponsorship speech for HB 5811 or the “Basic Law of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” at the Plenary Hall, House of Representatives in Quezon City on June 1, 2015. HB 5811 is the Committee-approved substitute bill to HB 4994 or the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law)

Mr. Speaker, my dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

Today is a day of hope, an auspicious time for change, a momentous opportunity to realize our long-standing aspirations. For today, we have come to the threshold where the future of our nation will once again be shaped – to usher a new era for national unity and lasting peace and development.

For almost half a century, the Moro people have endured the armed conflict in Mindanao. But their struggles have burdened them long before that. Since the arrival of the Spaniards, the Moro have braved aggression from various fronts which are meant to purge them of their cultural heritage and deprive them of a progressive future. They continue to endure until today.

The story of the Bangsamoro is a national tragedy that vividly demonstrates our social ills – injustice, inequality and discrimination. Muslim Filipinos have always been marginalized and neglected in the national narrative of recovery and development. They are among the poorest of the poor. Their lives even made more difficult by the horrors of war which continue to prolong the cycle of poverty and privation.

Last year, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was signed as a result of the 17-year negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines. Pursuant to this Agreement, House Bill No. 4994 or the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was filed in the House of Representatives. The proposed Basic Law, which has been re-titled Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region through Substitute House Bill No. 5811, is a legislative measure which is envisioned not only to provide for a genuine autonomy to Muslim Filipinos, but also to engender lasting peace and development in the whole of Mindanao.

This Bill is a landmark legislation because it seeks to put an end to the decades-old war and enable development initiatives to take root in conflict-affected areas in Muslim Mindanao. It aims to improve the institutional mechanisms of the present ARMM and introduce political and economic reforms which are meant to empower the ordinary Moro, Lumad, and other marginalized Filipinos in the Bangsamoro Region. In essence, this Bill is an instrument of social justice, a tool to rectify the historical injustices suffered by the Bangsamoro.

Realizing its impact not only to Muslim Filipinos but to the entire Filipino nation, this Bill has passed the proverbial eye of the needle before it was submitted to this chamber. The Ad Hoc Committee, chaired by the indefatigable and cerebral Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, has reviewed the proposed measure through numerous meetings and public hearings, conducted nationwide, in a span of almost eight months. In total, 51 meetings were held composed of 24 public hearings, 19 regular meetings and 8 executive sessions, which took away from most of its members even their time for leisurely weekends. This Representation takes pride in the fact that the biggest public hearing was held in the district of Basilan which I represent.

Deliberations on these meetings were held in a very democratic way. We received a compiled four volumes of position papers from various sectors and took time to consider them, with the end in view of improving the Bill’s provisions. Many proposals, even from the staunchest and harshest critics of the Bill, have been adopted by the Ad Hoc Committee. It also drew a historic number of House Member participants in public hearings and meetings. Many of them were legal luminaries, who greatly contributed in refining the Bill’s legal and constitutional aspects. After months of deliberations, the Ad Hoc Committee came up with an enhanced version which has sensibly harmonized any conflicting provision of the draft.

Some critics have stoked public fear and alarm in the hope of derailing the Bill by saying that it is unconstitutional. This Bill is not unconstitutional. The Peace Council, headed by former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, and some of the surviving framers of the 1987 constitution have given their stamp of approval on its constitutionality. Dismissing the allegations of critics, the surviving framers stressed that in public discussions about this Bill, “deliberation should be about people rather than semantics.” I couldn’t agree more. The main intent of this Bill is inclusive development of Mindanao and to protect the Bangsamoro and Indigenous peoples from further neglect and marginalization. Thus, this Bill should be given a liberal interpretation to enable it to flourish, instead of killing it by giving its provisions a narrow and constricted application of our Constitution.

To the critics of this Bill, I implore you to open your hearts and minds. This Bill is not only for the Moro but for the entire Filipino people, regardless of religion, culture and political persuasion. Cultural distinctions should be an accepted reality as we move forward to propel our nation to greater glory, instead of regarding it as a hindrance to national unity. Recognizing the Bangsamoro as a distinct part of our national identity will not result to the destruction of our republic. Nor will it tear apart our goals for national unity.

For many decades, our government has wrongly resorted to impose peace through the barrel of the gun. But no matter how strong it was, it failed to subdue the desire of every self-respecting Bangsamoro to fight for his freedom and the injustices committed against him and his forebears. The war in Mindanao did not achieve anything. It only sapped the energies of our peoples, and greatly contributed to the decadence of our nation. Perhaps, it is high time to give peace another chance. As the great John Lennon has passionately sung, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Mr. Speaker, we are now at the crossroads toward finding true peace, justice and equality for the Muslim Filipinos. We can no longer back down and return from where we came. We can no longer afford another period of discord where the only thing that will be guaranteed to us is the further loss of lives and economic opportunities. We can no longer afford to be divided as a nation because we will stand weak and vulnerable when we have to face real enemies.

Mr. Speaker, fellow Filipinos with legitimate aspirations for peace and justice are not our enemies; but, foreign powers which do not respect our sovereignty and national identity can be. And the threat coming from them is alarmingly happening now as we speak. Must we wait for our enemies to come to our shores before we realize that we need to close ranks and strengthen the brotherhood and solidarity of our diverse communities?

Mr. Speaker, we need to pass this Bill. Failing to honor our commitments under the CAB will tarnish our image before the international community, which sent representatives to witness the historic signing last year and lauded us for our commitment to achieve lasting peace. But more importantly, we need to pass this Bill, Mr. Speaker, to prevent the rise of vicious religious extremism in the country. A regime of injustice and poverty provides a fertile ground for this evil phenomenon. We cannot allow this to happen, Mr. Speaker. We have to provide hope to the Muslim mother who lost her husband and children in the fighting. We have to provide an alternative to the Moro farmer who lost his entire livelihood and cannot feed his family. We have to provide a future to the Moro youth who cannot go to school and has lost all hope for self-advancement.

Finally, let me take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to our Ad Hoc Committee Chairman, Cong. Rufus Rodriguez, for successfully steering the passage of this Bill at the Committee level. Our admiration is upon you for doing a splendid job of harmonizing the conflicting demands of our colleagues. I also wish to express my gratitude and appreciation to the Honorable Speaker Feliciano Belmonte for his unwavering support for all the efforts that went into developing Substitute House Bill 5811. The people of the Bangsamoro will forever be grateful to our Honorable Speaker, and our Committee Chairman, for their respective roles in the passage of this Bill.

For all these, Mr. Speaker, I respectfully and strongly seek the approval of Substitute House Bill 5811 or the Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

Thank you and good afternoon.