COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 08 October) – “Never say never to peace,” Mindanao’s civil society organizations and the government (GPH) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels say even as there are only 18 session days left to deliberate on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) when Congress resumes on November 3 until December 18. Or a maximum of seven session days for government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer’s hope that the Basic Law will be passed before the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Manila on November 18 and 19.
In Cotabato City, civil society leaders who gathered here on Monday and Tuesday vowed to continue pushing for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by December 16, the latest deadline set by House and Senate leaders, and the last chance for the measure to pass under the Aquino administration.
But those who attended the two-day “People’s Conversations on Hurdling Roadblocks in the Bangsamoro Roadmap to Peace,” convened by Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, the Archbishop of Cotabato and lead convener of Friends of Peace, and other civil society partners, are also preparing for the possibility that the draft BBL submitted to Congress on September 10, 2014, will not be passed under the Aquino administration but passed on to the next administration which will take over by June 30, 2016.
Ferrer on Wednesday said she hopes Congress passes it next month, before world leaders arrive for the APEC Summit.
“Why pass it in December if we can do it this November? After all, with the APEC here, the world will once again be watching the Philippines and it will be good for the whole country to have a BBL before then,” a press release from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process on Wednesday quoted Ferrer as saying.
“Leaders around the Asia Pacific would want assurances that the Philippines is peaceful, progressive, and ready for development and integration. Let us not let that international meet be a missed opportunity,” she said.
At the press conference in the House of Representatives in Quezon City on “the Status of the Bangsamoro Basic Law” on Wednesday afternoon, Ferrer explained that if both Houses pass the BBL before APEC, the bicameral conference can happen after the APEC meeting and hopefully be finished before end of November.
“We see no reason bakit hindi pwedeng ma-prioritize itong pagpapasa ng panukalang Bangsamoro Basic Law given the fact that number one, a lot of resources have already been invested here by Congress itself.” She mentioned the “more than 50 committee hearings that have been conducted.”
One moment in history
Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel and the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the government-MILF body tasked to draft the BBL, said Wednesday’s press conference is a “wake up call to all concerned, including the two branches of Congress to do some last-ditch belt-tightening measures, otherwise the passage of the BBL is a foregone conclusion.”
“What should be done, therefore, to save the BBL from being relegated to the dustbin of history?” he asked.
For Iqbal, “the only window of opportunity” is between November and December because “after that, it is all politics that (will) fill the air.”
He appealed to lawmakers to “rise up to the occasion and be statesmen even for one moment in the history of this country. The fate of the BBL is in your hands, and history will judge you on how you dispense with the BBL, which is the key solution to the Bangsamoro Question, a problem that has pestered us not only for decades but even for centuries.”
He also reiterated that the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) provide that the BBL should be certified as urgent to fast-track its passage in Congress.
As agreed by both parties, the President is supposed to certify the bill as urgent, as soon as the BTC, the government-MILF body tasked to draft the BBL, submits it to Congress. The final draft BBL, the result of the work of the Iqbal-chaired BTC and the Office of the President, was submitted to Congress on September 10, 2014, in ceremonial rites held in Malacanang. The President, however, has not certified it as urgent.
According to its website, Congress’ legislative process involves 12 steps: preparation of the bill, first reading, committee consideration/action, second reading, third reading, transmittal of the approved bill to the Senate, Senate action on approved bill of the House, Conference Committee, transmittal of the bill to the President, Presidential action on the bill, action on approved bill, action on vetoed bill.
Both Houses are still on the fourth step – second reading – whose approval requires three steps: the period of sponsorship and debate, period of amendments, and voting. In both Houses, the sponsorship is done but the debate or the period of interpellation is not yet finished.
The substitute bills, HB 5811 and SB 2894, known as “Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” or BLBAR are not acceptable to the MILF which said they render the proposed Bangsamoro, the new autonomous political entity that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) “less autonomous than the ARMM” that it seeks to replace.
Iqbal has repeatedly said they hope that the BBL that would be passed is compliant with the FAB and CAB. He has also repeatedly said “it is better to have no BBL than a watered down BBL” because that would not solve but perpetuate the problem.
He told MindaNews on Thursday that the BBL he mentioned at the press conference is the BBL as submitted in September last year, not the substitute bills.
At the press conference, Iqbal said they hope that during the period of amendments, the “very essential” provisions that the substitute bills deleted will “be restored.”
The quorum problem has been hounding both houses of Congress since they resumed sessions in late July. But mustering a quorum in November and December is expected to be even more difficult as reelectionists and third-termers by then had filed their certificates of candidacy for another term or for another post, and the political configurations shall have changed by then.
Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and principal sponsor of HB 5811, was a no-show in Wednesday’s press conference. Committee Vice Chair Bai Sandra Sema of Maguindanao was present, along with Anak Mindanao party list Rep. Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman.
Rodriguez, a third-term representative of Cagayan de Oro, announced last month that he would run for mayor of Cagayan de Oro City.
In the Senate, no interpellation could be done this week as Senator Ferdinand Marcos, principal sponsor of SB 2894, was absent. Marcos declared early this week that he would run for Vice President. Four other senators are running for Vice President: Francis Escudero, Alan Cayetano, Antonio Trillanes IV and Gregorio Honasan. Another Senator, Grace Poe, is running for President, while several senators are seeking reelection, including Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies said he is optimistic the BBL can still be passed “with push from President and for President to certify the bill as urgent.”
“To me this is the only remaining chance that the BBL will pass. Otherwise BBl can be considered dead in Congress,” he said.
“While there is still a window of opportunity left under tbe Aquino administraton, the size of the window is shrinking day by day until it will be closed at the end of the year,” Lingga said.
18 session days, 7 or 5 session days
Rodriguez had eyed September 15 as the target date for the passage of HB 5811, the substitute bill to the draft BBL, before Congress goes on recess on October 10. But the perennial problem of lack of quorum resulted to only five representatives finishing their interpellation between August 4 and September 23.
Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat managed to interpellate for a few minutes on September 23, as continuation from his June 10 interpellation, but it was suspended as Buhay party list Rep. Lito Atienza questioned the quorum, and the period of interpellation itself was suspended to give way to the plenary debates on the national budget. There are still 21 representatives on the list of those who signified intent to interpellate, according to the monitoring of the BTC and the Bangsamoro Study Group.
Congress will go on recess by October 10 and will resume sessions from November 3 to December 18, take a break from December 19 to January 18 and resume sessions again from January 19 to February 5. It will then go on an extended recess from February 6 to May 22 (May 9 is the date for the synchronized national, regional and local elections) and resume sessions from May 23 to June 22.
MindaNews checked the Legislative Calendar and noted that between November 3 and December 18 are only 18 session days from Monday to Wednesday with one Wednesday, Nov. 18, declared a holiday due to the APEC meeting.
Between November 3 and the November 18-19 APEC meeting, as Ferrer suggested the BBL should have been passed by then, are only seven session days, or five if November 16 and 17 are also declared non-session days in view of the APEC Summit.
But fewer session days may be allotted for the BBL because aside from the national budget, is also a demand from Senator Juan Ponce Enrile that the Senate Committee Report on the January 25 Mamasapano Tragedy be deliberated at the plenary. Enrile asked this in his privilege speech on Wednesday.
When Congress resumes sessions next year, it will only have eight session days before it takes a break again for the May 9 elections.
Before Enrile’s privilege speech, Senate President Drilon and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte had said they would prioritize the BBL along with the national budget when Congress resumes on November 3.
Both leaders had agreed on December 16 as their target date to pass the BBL.
Raissa Jajurie of the Bangsamoro Study Group presented comparisons of the draft BBL as submitted on Sept. 10, 2014 (HB 4994 and SB 2408) and the substitute bills. The title of her presentation was ” Where is the Bangsamoro in the BLBAR of Congress?”
She showed illustrations of how the exclusive and concurrent powers for the Bangsamoro under the draft BBL were taken out by the substitute bills.
“Stand up for BBl, not BLBAR”
The question, however, of which BBL Congress will pass, remains, given that both substitute bills have been rejected by the MILF and statements from peace groups, church and academe have acknowledged the problems posed by the substitute bills, among others that the House version is making the future Bangsamoro less autonomous than the ARMM and the Senate version is further reducing the future Bangsamoro into a mere local government unit.
“We all know that the versions of the BBL in the Legislature are far from acceptable,” Cardinal Quevedo said, adding that several comparative analyses prove that such BBL versions “are reflections of a dismal mindset that is hopelessy mired within the structural paradigm of Local Government Units. Such a mindset cannot comprehend the potentials of power granted by the Constitution for an authentic Autonomous Region that is expressedly part and parcel of the Philippine Republic.”
“Stand up for BBL, not BLBAR,” Fr. Joel Tabora, President of the Ateneo de Davao University, urged participants after lawyer Chrsitian Monsod, a surviving member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, said “the worse violation of the Constitution are the substitute bills that do not implement” the provisions on setting up an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao that are intended, he said, “to bring about peace, social justice and the human development of its peoples.”
Addressing Monsod, Tabora said it has become “very clear that (it’s) not the BBL but the BLBAR, those two versions (in Congress) are in your reading, unconstitutional because they do not follow the mandate of the Constitution.”
He urged participants to “take the initiative in pushing this line and.. do something” as the two substitute bills “are in themselves unconstitutional and therefore a necessity for the legislators to shift back to the BBL.”
Monsod replied, “I think that is a good idea to say that the substitute bills fail to fulfill the vision and letter of the Constitution.”
Monsod also said that when Congress says provisions in the draft BBL are unconstitutional, “I think we have to ask Congress which provision does it violate…They do not cite the specific Constitutional provision.”
He said with the powers diluted under the substitute bills, “there is no chance for them (Bangasmoro) to exercise autonomy.”
To the districts
While Congress is on recess between October 10 and November 2, the campaign for the passage of the draft BBL as submitted to Congress on September 10, 2014 will continue, this time in the representatives’ respective districts, Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, said.
At the press conference that capped the activity late Tuesday afternoon, the Cardinal explained that they identified the roadblocks to peace in the Bangsamoro (see other story), “discerned the situation, studied the situation of the BBL as well as the situation in Mindanao and then we asked questions about what we are doing and what we should do in the future.”
He cited four “very important dimensions” for imperatives of action: engagement with the government and the MILF, engaging the legislators; the role of media and communication; and “planning about what happens if the BBL does not pass, or whatever contingency plans should violence occur.”
“Nakakalungkot na di pa rin makita ang kapayapaan” (How sad that we sill cannot see the dawning of peace), Guiamel Alim, executive director of the Kadtuntaya Foundation and a member of the Council of Elders of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society quoted residents of communities as saying.
Alim said the sentiments of the communities “na matagal nang nasa ilalaim ng gyera ay gusto nilang mabuhay nang tahimik, gusto nilang ma-improve ang kanilang kalaagayan, mapag-aral ang kanilang mga anak. Umaasa sila na ang BBL na ginawa ng BTC ay (paraan na) magkaroon ng kapayapaan para magkaroon ng development sa kanilang lugar. (that have long been living in war want to live in peace, to improve their lives, to send their children to school. They hope the BBL drafted by the BTC is a way to peace).”
Alim and Fr. Roberto Layson, head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Inter-Religious Dialogue are members of the Grassroots Ceasefire Monitoring Network.
Layson witnessed four wars in six years – 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2003– in Pikit, North Cotabato, that displaced mostly more than half of the town’s 69,000 population then. In the aftermath of the botched signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in August 2008, thousands of residents were also displaced.
But the peace negotiations and the signing of the FAB and CAB have changed the situation, he said. In the recent town fiesta on September 29, the program scheduled at 9 a.m. started past 10 a.m because “ang daming tao po, Christian, Muslim, Lumad, nagsama sa parade” (thousands of Christians, Muslims and Lumads joined the parade).
He said residents from the interiors who did not join parades before participated this time “hindi tulad noon kasi takot sila” (unlike before when they were afraid).
Layson narrated that residents he met at the plaza would tell him “Father, malaking pagbabago na talaga, sana tuloy-tuloy na ito,” (Father, so much has changed. We hope this will continue).
Layson echoed the hopes of Pikit residents. He said what is happening in Pikit only shows that that the conflict can be solved in the negotiating table and not the battlefields.
“War is dirty and very inhuman… War is not the solution. War is the problem for us here in Mindanao,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)