MIND DA NEWS: Ain’t the End Yet

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 17 July 17) – The 8-page Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth-Sharing (AWS, for short) is a landmark agreement. How it will translate into the fiscal autonomy of the Bangsamoro will depend on a number of factors, some still unseen. Crucial toward this end is right transitionright in terms of people; right in terms of time. This we will discuss in a separate comment later.

The AWS was supposed to have been signed during the end-March 37th exploratory talks (ET), a month after it was initialed on February 25, 2013, the 36th ET. However, the scheduled March 25 ET was only a Special Meeting and reset the 37th ET to the second week of April. Yet, during the April 9-11 37th ET, the Government panel asked for more time to study the AWS with due diligence – the Parties agreeing to meet after the May13 election. This did not happen; neither did it in June.

The AWS was signed 108 days or three and a half months after it had been initialed. Was the study with due diligence that long worth it? MILF rejected the changes and stuck to the initialed document. The July 8-11 38th ET could have ended empty had President Aquino III not dispatched to Kuala Lumpur OPAPP Secretary Teresita Deles and Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda to have the talks extended.

Saved by the SONA (State of the Nation Address)! Critics quipped as the AWS was almost counted out last July 11. The President has to have something eventful to say in his SONA on July 22 to update the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro. The talks had to be extended for two days and Government obviously reconsidered its new proposals just to have the AWS signed. GPH Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer denied this at a press conference in Malacañang last Monday. But tell that to columnists Ninez Cacho-Olivarez, Federico Pascual and Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI.

President Arroyo did the same on July 27, 2008; she sent back immediately to Kuala Lumpur GRP Panel Chair Rodolfo Garcia and OPAPP Secretary Hermogenes Esperon to relent and initial the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain after the talks had broken up the day before. She had to include the historic event in her SONA on the next day. Tribune editor Ninez Cacho-Olivares finds it “funny” that Noynoy has to do exactly what Gloria did when he degrades Gloria as his “opposite”.

What did Government compromise? We have no copy of the initialed AWS to which to compare the signed one. Some media reports cited government and MILF sources. Joint and separate statements of the panel chairs tell the importance and significance of the signed AWS agreement and what to expect from it:

Joint Statement: “The Parties believe that the Annex, which forms part of the FAB, will provide sufficient guidance for the crafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law’s provisions on wealth sharing and revenue generations for the Bangsamoro as envisioned by the FAB.”

GPH Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: “We have a good package, one that we believe would make fiscal autonomy in the Bangsamoro a reality. This Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing seeks to fulfill the aspirations for meaningful autonomy for Muslim Mindanao that was envisioned in the Constitution.” (OPAPP Website, July 14, 2013: Gov’t, MILF sign wealth-sharing annex for Bangsamoro)

MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal: His text message as reported by MindaNews (July 14, 2013: Iqbal says MILF got “much more than the ARMM” for future Bangsamoro): The MILF did not get everything it proposed to the Philippine government’s peace panel on the issue of wealth-sharing and revenue generation but they secured for the future Bangsamoro government “much more than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao;” and, what the MILF got in terms of taxing powers, shares in revenues, natural resources and block grant “strengthen the ancestral domain doctrine.”

Media reports only gave samples of the disagreements. (1) Government approved the 75-25 sharing scheme in general but changed the 50-50 for renewable energy and the 100 percent for non-metallic resources (Inquirer Mindanao, July 3, 2013). (2) The government did not want to peg grants to the proposed future Bangsamoro as a percentage of the total annual budget but as a specific fund source, in keeping with generally accepted fiscal management practice. (Inquirer Mindanao, June 28, 2013).

The government relented as seen in RGAWS VII.1.2.3 and V.A., respectively.

Obviously, Government was peeved by critics and peace groups pressuring it and MILF to resume the peace talks and sign the comprehensive agreement as time was running out. In the OPAPP article cited above, the lead paragraph reads: “Just when everyone thought that the peace negotiations were going nowhere, the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) surprised the whole nation with yet another breakthrough. They signed the Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing.” At her press conference, Ferrer referred to critics as “pessimists”.

Not just to be dramatic. Call it a mild rebuke! Rightly felt, maybe. But feelings can blind. Everyone was seeingnot thinking – the negotiations were going nowhere. Everyone was relievednot surprised – that the AWS was signed. Everyone was hoping and expecting it after the two panels had decided to extend the talks.

Everyone understands the unenviably difficult position of the government negotiators – more than that of the MILF. But they should also understand the peace groups and most critics mean well. They will be appreciated for their sincerity, not for statements and beautiful rhetoric without rhyme or reason. For, instance, Ferrer said, President Aquino fully backed the AWS as signed. If so (after 108 days of study?) why was there an impasse till the end of the four-day talks as Iqbal told MindaNews on July 11?

In the MindaNews report cited above, Iqbal said: “I am pleased but right now I still see the bumpy road ahead. There are still many challenges ahead.” While he may be referring to the two remaining Annexes still on the table, he must be saying this of the AWS. The signing “ain’t the end yet”. There are ambush points ahead.

There is no guarantee that as yet the AWS is nationally accepted. By cursory comments from congressional leaders, particularly from House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Sen. Franklin Drilon, the agreements as embodied in the Basic Bangsamoro Law draft will be scrutinized “to make sure they were advantageous to the people” (The Philippine Star, July 16, 2013). That’s a monster of a bump. And more! Anyone out of the blue can invoke the “Regalian Doctrine” to question the constitutionality of AWS before the Supreme Court.

The AWS ain’t the last of the Annex enigma. The two left – on power-sharing and normalization – are admitted to be as contentious as the AWS. Ferrer assured reporters last Monday these will be signed by the end of the year. That does not promise a big, big celebration. That ain’t the end yet.

That only magnifies the biggest enigma: How much time will be left for the proper transition of the Bangsamoro? (Patricio P. Diaz / MindaNews)