COMMENT: Believe Them or Not?

I. The Real Reason

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 17 June) – Last April 14, the BTC (Bangsamoro Transition Commission) submitted to the OP (Office of the President) a partial copy of the draft of the BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law). On the following week, April 22, the BTC completed the submission of the draft – 18 articles, 97 pages together with all attachments. The draft was supposed to have been submitted to the Congress last May 5, certified as urgent by the President after the OP legal team had reviewed it.

The original schedule was for the BTC to submit the draft on March 31 to allow one month for the OP legal team to review the draft. But compensating for the 15-day delay, the OP legal team should have given to the President the reviewed draft last May 15 for immediate submission to the Congress. The OP legal team is still reviewing the draft; this will be submitted to the Congress when it resumes session on July 28, MindaNews reported last June 10.

The assurance from the Peace Process Office and the Palace that the BBL will be passed on schedule and will not adversely affect the peace process will soon be proven right or wrong. What we want to know are: first, the real reason or cause for the OP legal team in reviewing the BBL draft for so long; second, the real Bangsamoro that will ultimately be entrenched by June 2016.  

What They Say and Mean

In the first week of this month – a month after the President had failed to submit to the Congress the BBL draft last May 5 – the Office of the President and Peace Process Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles justified the delay, as published in the Manila media: The OP legal team has been thoroughly reviewing the BBL draft to make sure that the bill certified to the Congress would be “more refined and strengthened” or, from another view, more “unifying and integrating”.

The first aim of the review implies the unsatisfactory textual construction and style of the draft and its vulnerability to legal challenges. The second suggests that the draft has not satisfactorily addressed the conflicting interests of the Moros, Lumads and Christian settlers within the Bangsamoro territory. To remedy these, the draft must fully adhere to the 1987 Constitution and be in sync with the agreements.

Last June 10, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and Bangsamoro Transition Commission Chair Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF Panel chair, clarified in their joint “Press Statement on the Status of the Draft Bangsamoro Law” that: [1]the “President … expects a law that is ‘equitable, practical, and empowering, and which serves the interests of the entire nation’; and, [2] “… a thorough, extensive and comprehensive review of the draft law’s numerous provisions is a necessary part of the process to ensure that these are consistent with what the parties agreed upon in the 17 years of peace negotiation.(Bold text supplied)

The [1] in the joint press statement reiterates the first aim of the thorough review enunciated by the OP and Deles. However, the [2] sounds ambiguous, especially with reference to MILF’s initial rejection of the 1987 Constitution and its demands deemed unconstitutional.

Do they really mean what they say?With due respect to their sincerity, which we don’t mean to impeach, there are valid grounds for adversarial questions.

Item 1: Philippine Daily Inquirer (June 5 editorial: Rough passage), quoted Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda’s explanation: “We just want to be sure that the Bangsamoro Basic bill – as early as now being tagged [as] unconstitutional – will stand judicial scrutiny. We are here to review [it so] that it complies with the provisions of the [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro]. So, in both cases, we want to make sure that, to a large extent, we want to make sure that when it goes to Congress, it will be as smooth as possible.”

Essentially a rehash of the other published explanations, PDI described Lacierda’s version as “lame” and questioned the long review on two counts: [1] “through the government-appointed BTC members, “the proposed Basic Law … should not have come as a surprise to Malacañang. [2] Aware of the tight deadlines, the Palace lawyers should have commenced their review even before submission, during the commission’s deliberations.”

Item 2: The Government Panel had referred all agreements to the OP legal team before the signing. In fact, among the reasons for the slow pace in the negotiation of the Annexes was that the OP legal team had to “study them with due diligence”. According to a Luwaran editorial virtually an MILF official statement – the BTC copy-pasted into the draft most of the provisions of the agreement. The OP legal team could have easily detected errant or erroneous provisions.

Item 3: Both the Government and MILF panels had legal staffs. The agreements are in legal form. “Refinement” of the text should not have delayed the submission of the draft to the Congress. Writing every law in the correct legal form is the responsibility of the Congress. Does Malacañang expect the Congress to just rubber stamp the BBL in the form and content of the draft as certified by the President?

Item 4: Government Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has emphasized that they have been faithful to their mandate to negotiate within the Constitution. However, they have agreed that when necessary, constitutional amendments may be recommended. Why has it taken the OP legal panel that long to review the constitutionality of the BBL draft – a copy-paste version of the agreements? Recommended amendments are not unconstitutional, says the Supreme Court.

Item 5: More than one month – much more three months – is too long a period for the review and revision of the BBL draft. How many members has the OP legal team tasked to do the review? There must at least be three. The draft has 97 pages in 18 articles – on the average, each article in five and a half pages. Even with the attachments, will it take a legal expert one week to study one article, including consultations when necessary?

To quote a common saying, “There’s more than meets the eye.” Beyond what the Palace and Peace Process Secretary have explained and what Executive Secretary Ochoa and BTC Chair Iqbal have jointly clarified, is there more that Government or President Aquino III wants accomplished or ensured through the review and revision of the BBL draft?

In Truth

On Day One, MILF demanded as a solution to the Moro Problem a political settlement that would establish autonomy for the Moros – one beyond that provided in the 1987 Constitution – in fulfillment of the Moro right to self-determination. Through 17 years, it has negotiated for this; Government of the Republic of the Philippines has parried the demands – agreeing without fully conceding, doing “one step backward, two steps forward” motion. Obviously, concessions from both the Government and MILF are not without reservation.

Hence, the CAB, a compendium of agreements over disagreements, is a paradox. The OP and the BTC justify the review as a process necessary to ensure the consistency of the BBL draft to this paradox.

To encapsulate

MOA-AD Episode: The negotiation took off from a long matrix of MILF proposals including transition modalities and mechanisms. The process – “nicely” stated – was: MILF proposed; GRP commented; they reconciled their positions to a consensus. The consensuses would compose a memorandum of agreement.

The “proposal-comment-consensus” process that characterized the GRP-MILF negotiation was tedious and contentious. The proposals were dissected and examined down to the word-level. GRP was wary of terms which meant or implied freedom leading to independence; MILF was allergic to any direct reference to the Constitution and asserted strongly the Moro birthright, identity and right to self-determination.

A disagreement over interpretation of a word could lead to a walk-out or impasse. For instance, the Malaysian facilitator had to shuttle between Manila and the MILF main camp in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao to iron out a disagreement in percentage of tax sharing.

After almost four years of such negotiation, GRP and MILF initialed on July 27, 2008 the MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain). A compendium of consensuses, the MOA-AD was the framework of the Moro Autonomy, the Bangsamoro Judicial Entity – defining its concepts and principles, territory, resources and governance. The BJE would be entrenched after the 15-month negotiation of the Comprehensive Compact that would embody the MOA-AD and the transitory mechanisms and modalities – the negotiation to follow the MOA-AD signing.

The Supreme Court, acting on questions of constitutionality by a host of petitioners, restrained the Arroyo government from signing MOA-AD set on August 5, 2008. The negotiations broke down; punitive military operations after MILF had attacked military camps and civilian villages in the provinces of Lanao, Maguindanao, Cotabato and Sarangani continued until July 23, 2009 bringing untold sufferings to the Moro civilian population.

Post-MOA-AD to June 3, 2010: On July 29, 2009, GRP and MILF agreed to resume their negotiation. But this did not take off until December; yet, within the next six months left of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s term, Government wanted to have a final agreement signed. To expedite this, they agreed to forge a final agreement from draft proposals based on a common outline.

The scheme failed. MILF submitted a draft following the outline; GRP ignored the outline and proposed to enhance the autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanaoas the political settlement of the Moro Problem rejected it – as it did when offered twice earlier. GRP called it quits. On June 3, 2010, the GRP-MILF interim agreement was signed for the peace process to continue under incoming Aquino III government.    

GPH-MILF “Era”: The Aquino government changed “GRP”, the officially used acronym for “Government of the Republic of the Philippines” to “GPH”“G” for “Government” and the ISO code “PH” for “Philippines” – or just “Government of the Philippines”. But “Republic of the Philippines” was still the masthead of official reports and communications of government offices; so, the acronym of “Government of the Republic of the Philippines” (“Government” in short) is still “GRP”, not just “GPH” which is distinctive of the Aquino III era.

The negotiation under “GPH-MILF” was unchanged from what it had been under “GRP-MILF” until June 3, 2010 – the same Moro Problem to solve, the same third-country facilitator and the same Kuala Lumpur as the venue. Yet, the GPH-MILF peace talk was distinctive; the GPH peace team was adept in adapting to change and adopting change and it was buoyed by the popularity and perceived sincerity of President Aquino III that charmed the MILF negotiators.

GPH and MILF still negotiated on the “exchange of draft proposals” mode. The GPH team first studied the MILF draft – a comprehensive compact composed basically of the “reframed” MOA-AD with annexes and proposed transitional mechanisms and modalities. After that it presented its draft, the “3 for 1 Proposal”. Adopting points from the MILF draft, it was a formula of tri-partnership – with MILF as one partner – to reform the ARMM as the autonomy for the Moros.

MILF rejected outright the “3 for 1 Proposal”. Government changed tack. It obviously accepted the MILF draft proposal as the talking point – agreeing to MILF demands which were within the 1987 Constitution, allowing proposals for constitutional amendments only when necessary. In the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro – composed of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its four Annexes – the political entity “Bangsamoro” will be established as the solution of the Moro Problem.

As agreed, the agreements were to be drafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission into the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the draft to be certified to the Congress by the President as an urgent bill. The OP legal team is now reviewing the draft before its submission to the Congress.

Relevant Notes  

Manila will only grant the Moros the autonomy that Government is willing to give. As borne out by events not so long past, that willingness is not infinite. When President Joseph E Estrada got impatient trying to convince MILF to sign the peace he had wanted, he waged the 2000 all-out war and captured all MILF major camps.

However, Manila would talk peace on the Moro demands to pacify the Moros. President Fidel V. Ramos did this with the Moro National Liberation Front and signed the 1996 Peace Agreement. After that, he immediately offered to negotiate with MILF.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo revived the GRP-MILF negotiation to appease MILF. She   offered Enhanced Autonomy before her “unelected” term expired in 2004 which MILF rejected. She resumed the talks on MILF demands ending with the aborted MOA-AD. She again offered Enhanced Autonomy in January 2010 hoping to sign peace with MILF before her term expired on June 30, 2010.

President Aquino III’s “3 for 1 Proposal” was really to change the talking point from MILF demand to autonomy that Government had always been willing to grant. But when MILF rejected the offered “third-part” role in the “Reformed ARMM” scheme, he reverted to the MILF demands as the talking point.

From Ramos to Aquino III, the tack was essentially the same. Build mutual confidence and good will; trade concessions. Under the Aquino III era, MILF conceded so much of its positions that its original six-word talking point, “How to solve the Moro Problem”, evolved into “How to solve the problems about the Moro Problem.”

In granting MILF demands within the 1987 Constitution and agreeing on proposals to amend the Constitution, Government negotiators know that the President and the Congress have the last say. MILF, to its discomfiture, understands this.

In the case of the BBL draft, the OP legal team is making sure that every provision adheres to the 1987 Constitution and every proposal to amend the constitution is necessary. What the President will certify to the Congress is a revised or “refined” version.

The Congress will surely repeat the process. The Supreme Court may be asked to give the last and final say.

The “refined and strengthened” BBL – with the Supreme Court imprimatur if sought – will entrench Bangsamoro as the autonomy Government is willing to grant – deemed fit for the Moros and beneficial for the entire country. This is the truth.

(To Be Continued: Ultimate Impact)

[“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]]