CONVERSATIONS with Omar Yasser Crisostomo Sema: Mediation is more relevant given the intertwining conflicting interests

Conversations with Omar Yasser Crisostomo Sema, former member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, now member of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, on  12 April 2019 in Cotbato City. 

Lawyer Omar Yasser Crisostomo Sema, member, Bangsamoro Transition Authority. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO BUENO

Q. I’d like to start off with your being member of the Insider Mediators and how, if you recall your experience as a member of the IM and at the same time BTC (Bangsamoro Transition Commission) Commissioner in the passage of the Bangsamoro law. What were your unforgettable experiences as a member of IM at that time?
A. Well we have been actually mediating even before I became member of the IM group. It was organized by the UNDP prior to my membership in BTC, mediating between two chairmen, Muslimin Sema of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Al Haj Murad Ebrahim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), especially in the last days of the first salvo of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that was affected by the Mamasapano incident.

I had been helping Chairman Muslimin Sema in discussing with Chairman Murad of possibilities of a Bangsamoro Basic Law, where it would begin and where it would end because of that incident of Mamasapano. Fortunately, the two leaders had come to an agreement on further strengthening the unity of MNLF as a party in the CAB (Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between government and the MILF), of course MNLF was pushing for the full implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement as a result of the tripartite review on the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. Remember there had been, there was a unified statement issued by the two leaders sometime in 2015 and from then on, the MNLF and the MILF have continuously worked for the full implementation of all signed peace agreements, more importantly the CAB

Q. That’s why it was easy for the MNLF to field nominees to the BTC?
A. Yes, primarily because of that and it was also of course, it was needed after they had agreed to work together on the MNLF transition, from the leadership of Muslimin Sema to Yusoph Jikiri then followed by a technical working group organized by the MNLF and MILF on how to push for the full implementation of the joint peace agreements.

Q. You were a commissioner of the BTC but at the same time, there are certain constraints when you are part of the drafting committee. Did being an IM member help you push for that law aside from being a BTC commissioner and if it did, in what way?
A. Yeah, it was very important because when we organized the IM group with the help of UNDP, a lot of issues unfolded before my eyes. There are so many intertwining interests and needs that need to be met in the legislation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Luckily, a lot of us came out who are actually playing a role of IM in the sectors to which they belong. Because of that, these issues helped me in pushing for an inclusive Bangsamoro Basic Law in the Bangs.amoro Transition Commission, especially interests of the youth.

Q. I saw a video recording where you were I think in Bangkok, when you were relating the experience of an IM and you said something even all the way to the comfort room.
A. Yeah. I remember that with Congressman, the Majority Floor Leader Rodolfo Fariñas. We were friends (with a member of his family) in Laoag City (who vouched) for me and along that line Congressman Fariñas was always consulting me on this perspective on BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) right before the beginning of the bicam (Bicameral Conference Committee). I was the last person he spoke to when he opened the bicam conference. And there are a lot of things he told me. There were positives, there were negatives and those positive statements that he revealed to me I made consultations with the then chairman of the BTC Ghadzali Jaafar.

Q. What was this all the way to the comfort room?
A. There was one provision in the BOL. If I remember right, it was the block grant. At first he was really adamant on his position that the 5% block grant was too high for the Bangsamoro. Now when they took a break, he asked to be excused and went to the toilet, the comfort room and then I followed him and his son told me ‘you can follow’ and then I went there. I explained to him that the 5% is actually too small to the Bangsamoro. I made a projection how it will be divided and how it will be disbursed in the region. There are five provinces in the region and entitled to a fair share of the Bangsamoro block grant and from there he changed his position. There was also another similar incident again, (I) followed him in the comfort room. That’s the issue of the Preamble…

Q. Fast forward… The law was passed and you are now a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). Do you think there is still a role for the IM to play in this new set up?
A. Yes, I think so. More important

Q. Why
A. Because even in the BTA, you can see the different interests, the needs of the people that are being represented there. Though we are not elected, a lot of the members of the BTA, especially from those who are nominated by the government, there are different interests. Some of them are members of the political clans, some of them belong to the organization, some of them are traditional leaders. So they brought their interests into the BTA. More important now, more mediators. Mediation is more relevant given the intertwining conflicting interests so that all laws that we will pass — electoral code, the local government code — will be truly representative of the interest of the people.

Q … I interviewed some of them … months ago … did the IM training … help you in the BTC?
A. Yes

Q. Can you bring that into the BTA also
A. Yes. I was trained in .. Netherlands. Trained about a week. Ten days. A lot of what were taught me there I really applied in the BTC, especially how to settle conflicting interests, groups

Q. There will be more now. BTA is a bigger group. From 21 in the BTC to 80 in the BTA.
A. Yeah, as far as the MILF is concerned, we know their interest is more of making this transition successful. A large focus of their attention will be on the success of transition. However, (for the) other groups, there are other interests. We have to adjust. Maraming magagaling eh na kailangan nating ma direct towards the success of this transition and the establishment of a functional regular Bangsamoro government

Q. I understand there are so many of you from the IM who are now occupying key positions in the parliament and even in the Cabinet.
A. Yeah

Q. Raissa and Aida and Naguib
A. That would contribute to the success of the BTA.

Q. What do you think is the major obstacle in the success of the BTA? You only have a very limited period and the success or failure of the BTA. of the BARMM is actually in your hands
A. I think the most clear obstacle would be if we allow short-cutting of processes… you cannot short-cut processes and second … yung RSD (right to self-determination) … the BTA is colloquial body that is determined … to exercise of the right to self determination of the Bangsamoro and to have a functional self governing government.

Q. That’s a major concern
A. It’s a major concern because there are already two instances na parang lumalabas na nagdedepend sa national government, especially we did not have to wait for the President (to grace the inauguration). We could have done it without him. We could have done it earlier the day we did it.

Q. You have a 60-day deadline to act on the transition plan
A. Yeah.

Q. You already have — this is Day 45 already and then the session is 10 days from now —
A. April 22.

Q. What is the agenda on the 22nd?
A. I think the agenda on the 22nd will be more on finishing rules and procedure

Q. Not done yet?
A. Finished already. But we need to discuss tasks. We have a very difficult task – the Administrative Code, we need to finish it within the year … the administrative code goes from time in in your office to time out. There are so many things to write in the Admin Code. There are only I think less than 10 lawyers in the BTA and it’s difficult to write an Administrative Code with only 10 lawyers,

Q, You’re only 10 lawyers?
A. I believe less than 10 actually in the BTA.

Q. There are four women lawyers in the BTA.
A. Yeah there are five male…. And so when we discussed about the admin code, we need to discuss about our staffing, our lawyers. We need lawyers to assist us to make sure that each member of the BTA will have (in his/her) legislative office … a lawyer so we can distribute our work in drafting the Admin Code.

Q. Committee?
A. That would be by committees. The Admin Code is also linked with the Election Code, the Local Government Code…

Q. You do not lose your being an IM because you’ve been appointed to the BTA right?
A. You can continue working on the mediation process, insider mediation within the BTA … you are compelled to mediate if you see interests are no longer meeting each other and it causes stoppage in the work. Kailangan mong mag mediate and in the first place, even before I became IM, I have been mediating between MILF and the MNLF particularly the leadership.

Q. So it’s a shift from mediating between the two groups to
A. Mediating interests

Q. Siempre iba na ang configuration … this is not just a commission. You’re actually a part of the new government. In your hands, in all of your hands lie the success or failure of this experiment as some people would refer to it. … Do the IMs still have a role to play here in the BTA given that it’s a loose group and you’re actually carrying different interests also into the table. To get more people involved in the BTA processes, parliament and the executive, those who are not part of it for now, the youth leaders for instance, can they be part of that IM?
A. Yeah more mediation, more mediators. IM would be working with the Bangsamoro government.