MinBC’s Lao: Mindanao’s biz sector can “hitch a ride” on MILF initiative

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 April) – On Wednesday,  the  Catholic bishops of Mindanao asked the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panel clarifications on issues such as territory, indigenous peoples and the practice of religion within a proposed Bangsamoro sub-state. On Thursday, Mindanao’s business executives raised concerns not on the scope of  the territory but on doing business within a sub-state, with the chair of the Mindanao Business Council (MinBC) saying there is a “very, very thin line” that separates the “aspirations of the MILF and the aspirations of the business sector in Mindanao” in terms of trying to “carve out some degree of independence from Imperial Manila.”

MinBC chair Vicente Lao said it may even be a “good opportunity for us to hitch a ride on this initiative which the MILF is doing.”’

It was the first dialogue between Mindanao’s business sector and the MILF peace panel but the second for the bishops since 2008.

“This is the first time that the business sector will be able to really understand the root and the causes (of the conflict) that the MILF would like to bring out to the business sector,” Lao said at the Agila Room of the Waterfront Insular Hotel.

“I would like to tell the MILF panel that the (line that separates the) aspirations of the MILF and the aspirations of the businesses sector in Mindanao is a very, very thin line. Our aspirations are very, very similar in the way we are being treated by Imperial Manila so you will have the support of the business sector in Mindanao,” Lao said, interrupted briefly by applause from the crowd, “especially if the benefits that will be taken out of this consultation will benefit the majority of the people in Mindanao.”

Before the open forum, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal delivered an opening statement where he stressed that MILF “is not against development, provided it is not development aggression; one that makes people the victims, not the beneficiaries.”

Panel member Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga presented the salient features of the “MILF Final Working Draft on Comprehensive Compact.” Government peace panel chair Dean Marvic Leonen in February said the MILF’s draft was “not a document seeking independence or secession from the Republic of the Philippines” and that it was “not that radical and it looks like it’s going for a win-win and principled agreement.”

Harris Diamad, Executive Director of the Muslim Business Forum (MBF), who was tasked to deliver a response on behalf of the business sector said they are “really bullish to have an agreement to end this conflict but the obstacle is the unconstitutionality of the contents of the agreement. How can we deal with the constitutionality of the agreement?”

Diamad was referring to the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) whose signing on August 5, 2008 was aborted when the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order stopping the government peace panel chair from signing the agreement that it later declared unconstitutional in its present form.

Amend by appending

By a vote of 8-7, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the MOA-AD but said, “surely, the present MOA-AD can be renegotiated or another one will be drawn up to carry out the Ancestral Domain aspect of the Tripoli Agreement of 2001, in another or in any form, which could contain similar or significantly drastic provisions.”

Mastura said that in their study of  more than 40 peace processes and agreements worldwide, “about 40 involved major constitutional amendments.”

“There is no way we can escape constitutional change. Constitutional ideology is part of the demand across the table,” he said, adding the National Democratic Front also raised constitutional issues, but unlike the NDF, he said, “we don’t’ want to take over Malacanang. You can have it all.” Mastura

Setting up a Bangsamoro sub-state, however, requires amending the 1987 constitution.

Mastura said they want the amendment “now because it is still far from the end of the PNoy (Aquino) administration” and the President would not be accused of self-serving agenda as it was applied to Ramos and Arroyo,” he said.

Mastura explained that constitutional law expert Father Joaquin Bernas’ proposal is to amend through “surgical way” by amending Sections 15 to 20 on the autonomous region under Article X of the 1987 Constitution but an alternative, he said, would be to amend by appending the provisions on power-sharing as agreed upon by both panels to be substituted for Sections 15 to 20 “as if such provisions were expressly inserted therein to read as part thereof.”

“You amend the Constitution but you don’t touch anything, not even a period or a comma, etc.,” he said.

He said the American Constitution, after which the Philippine Constitution is patterned, allows this, and that there is a precedent in the Philippine setting since the Laurel-Langley Agreement on parity rights was appended to the 1935 Constitution.

Like Queensland in Australia

“We are not asking for parity rights. We are asking for parity of esteem,” Mastura said, adding, “we are no longer talking Bangsamoro Juridical Entity or BJE. In other words, very  nebulous, very generic. We are now saying Bangsamoro State. We are asking for a Bangsamoro State,  not a separate state but a sub-state. It can be like Queensland of Australia, it can be like that of Massachusetts, or it can be like Kelantan or Sabah or Sarawak in Malaysia, in a federation. But since you do not like, the rest of the country does not like federal – we go for associative and therefore it will be an asymmetrical relationship.”

Apparently in response to Diamad’s concern, Lao said, “Let’s forget about the Supreme Court. These guys change their mind also every now and then. You just look at the municipal and cityhood of these 16 cities. How many times did they change their mind?”

“Being constitutional or not constitutional as declared by the Supreme Court is irrelevant to the people in Mindanao. So let’s just discuss these, go into the depths of whatever we want to discuss and digest all of these so we can also advocate if the issues that will be raised will be  beneficial to the people in Mindanao, we will fully support that. That’s the commitment from the Mindanao Business Council,” Lao added.

“Hitch a ride”

Later, after Gabriel Atega, Vice President of the Ansuico Trucking proposed that copies of the Mindanao map with the areas covered by the proposed Bangsamoro sub-state be reproduced and distributed, Lao said, “You know, the aspirations of the business sector in Mindanao have always been to try to see if we can carve out some degree of independence from Imperial Manila…..”

“Maybe this will be a good opportunity for us to hitch a ride on this initiative which the MILF is doing because this might be a shortcut way for us. Maybe if you will ask for a federal agreement, they will not give it to you, but if you say, okay, I have read the autonomous region’s law and it’s a beautiful law. The problem is there is no financial independence in that law because Malacanang still holds on to the purse. So maybe on the basis of that, if we can, let’s open our mind and look at that provision. If we can adopt that and make those provisions adaptable to the whole of Mindanao then that would be good for all, for everybody in Mindanao whether you’re a Christian, an IP or a Muslim because we will be able to achieve what we have been trying very hard to get. Now through the efforts of the MILF, the central government might give it to us. So let’s keep an open mind and look at the discussion because it  might be a way out of that quagmire which we are in for so many years and we are having a hard time getting out of it,” Lao said.

Aside from Lao, the other business executives who attended the dialogue were Harris Diamad, Executive Director (ED) of the Muslim Business Forum; Manuel Orig, Vice President for Mindanao of Aboitiz Power; Stephen Antig, ED of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association; Jonallier Perez, director and corporate secretary of the Mindanao Tourism Council; Bert Barriga, President of the ICT Davao, Inc; CK Chang, Chief Executive Officer of Agusan Plantations, Inc., Datu Haron Bandila, chair of the ARMM Business Council; Victorio Sumalinog, Community Relations Manager of the Davao Light and Power Company, Inc.; Rommel Gonzales, Project Officer of the Philippine Business for Social Progress; Antonio dela Cruz, Executive Vice President of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc.; Charles delos Reyes, MinBC membership officer; Gabriel Atega, Vice President of Ansuico Trucking, Inc; and Edgar Bullecer, manager of Paglas Corporation. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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