COMMENT: BBL Concerns: Little, Nothing or Big? (5)

(5th and Last of the Series)

IV. Molehill or Mountain?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, July 26, 2014 – In Parts I, II and III, we see what the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MLF), Government (GPH) and third parties say about the concerns of MILF over the revisions of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) draft by the Office of the President (OP) legal team. In their revision, the OP reviewers revised the draft to strictly conform to the 1987 Constitution.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) that drafted the BBL said about 60% of the draft had been revised. This would result in a “diluted BBL” that MILF will not accept because that is not consistent with the vision of MILF founder Ustadz Salamat Hashim; so, that will not solve the Bangsamoro Problem.

GPH justifies the OP revisions. In reiterating the commitment of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III to entrench the Bangsamoro as the solution to the Bangsamoro Problem, GPH is emphasizing that the BBL according to the standards of the President – in fact of all Presidents before Aquino III – is what will solve the Bangsamoro Problem. The President has the last say.

Well informed about the GPH-MILF agreements, the Moros are keenly watching. Guiamel Alim, chair of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, in a paper, presented, besides the hopes and challenges, the many questions the Moros and non-Moros have been asking, showing their own concerns about the Bangsamoro and the BBL – their future hovering between fulfillment and disillusionment.

Two prominent persons, both authoritative insiders in regards to the Moro Problem, believe that the Problem cannot be solved without amending the Constitution. One, Atty. Jesus Dureza, was the first chairman of the Government (then GRP) negotiating panel under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and later Presidential Peace Adviser. The other, Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI, was head of the monitoring and ceasefire teams under Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph E. Estrada. He was briefly chair of the GRP negotiating panel under President Arroyo.

The conflict now – as it has been for 17 years – is between the vision of Salamat Hashim and the Standards of the President strictly confined in the 1987 Constitution. What is blocking the path of the Bangsamoro – just a molehill seen as a mountain or a mountain seen as a molehill?

From Authoritative Sources

Without the copies of the original and revised BBL draft, we cannot tell how the BTCV original has been revised and what the revisions are. We can only discern these from Iqbal’s June 26 Istanbul speech, the July 5, 2014 Philippine Daily Inquirer’s report that Luwaran replicated on July 7 and that omf MindaNews last July 22.

In his Istanbul speech, Iqbal described the BBL draft copy he had received from the BTC as “bearing the OP remarks and comments which heavily diluted the original”. The OP version would make an organic law worse than RA 9054.

The Inquirer report (Palace overhauls draft of Bangsamoro basic law), from a source “privy to the talks” said that “with so many comments and revisions that practically nothing has been left unchanged in the original document” – mangling the draft and veering “away from the four annexes that are the heart and soul of the two parties’ peace agreement”.

MindaNews (GPH, MILF end four-day “workshop” in Manila; major issues unresolved), while unable to elicit from Iqbal details about the “heavily diluted” provisions, had it from“sources who read the reviewed draft” that “the Malacanang-proposed revisions have substantially changed the ‘letter and spirit’ of the agreement”.

Among the agreements not found in the revised version were (1) the delineation of powers as exclusive, concurrent and reserved; (2) the“core territory” listed in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro as the list is reportedly considered just for the purpose of determining where the plebiscite would be held; and (3) the term “asymmetric” to describe the relationship between the central or national government and the Bangsamoro government.

These three are at the core of the Bangsamoro as truly autonomous. We could only wonder what could have happened to other core provisions on the ministerial form of government, election, fiscal autonomy and many more in the annexes. They, too, must have been so “heavily diluted” and “mangled”.

No Submission

The BBL draft bill cannot be submitted to the Congress on July 28. This Luwaran reported on July 24 citing the interview of GPH Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer with ABS-CBN News last July 22. Ferrer said that major issues had not been settled during the “workshops” in Kuala Lumpur on July 8 to 11 and in Manila July 18 to 21.

The GPH and MILF panels consulted President Aquino III and Chairman Murad, respectively, after the last workshop. Ferrer said: “It’s not farfetched [Aquino and Murad] will meet as soon as possible depending on the need …”

Meantime, the two panel chairs gave their positions on BBL draft stand-off.

Ferrer’s Statement

In her statement “on the status of the draft” BBL posted in the OPAPP website last July 21, Ferrer said:

1. Despite our consistency, differences occur. “The Aquino administration has been consistent in its commitment for a Bangsamoro Basic Law that conforms to what has been agreed upon in the signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. As the review of the draft BBL by the negotiating panels of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) progresses, there continue to be significant points of differences between the Parties.”

2. Our firm position: “The GPH stands firm that we want a Bangsamoro Basic Law that can withstand political and legal scrutiny and be acceptable to various stakeholders, and the nation as a whole.”

3. Wishing MILF understands the crucial stage to hurdle: “We will not and cannot move forward in the roadmap towards the establishment of the Bangsamoro unless we hurdle this crucial stage. We wish the MILF to understand the basis for the comments made as part of the review process by the Office of the President.

“[First]: From the beginning it was very clear that the BBL will pass through regular legislation in Congress and therefore must fall within the parameters of the Constitution. We have been trying to stretch these parameters to accommodate the ideas that have been put in the BBL, in addition to what have been put in the signed documents.

“[Second]: But it is very clear we cannot overstep the boundaries of the Constitution.  That said, the BTC has been given the mandate to recommend changes in the Constitution all those ideas that could not be accommodated now under this Constitution. But the BBL must necessarily be constitutional.

“[Third]: This doesn’t mean also that key features that will distinguish the ARMM from the Bangsamoro are not being put forward in the draft law such as the parliamentary form of government, a parliament with more than 50 members made up of district, party list and reserved seats; an autonomous government that will enjoy high fiscal autonomy; a transition arrangement where the MILF’s brand of leadership will be tested.”

4. Justifying the delay: “All of us want the BBL draft to be submitted to Congress as soon as possible. But we cannot substitute haste with prudence. Whatever delay we are experiencing now is intended to avoid further difficulties after the bill is submitted to Congress.”

5. Appealing for understanding, reason and goodwill: “We understand the apprehensions of people who have long fought the government and now entering a new stage where they can actually participate in the government. But what we want is a mutually acceptable draft as the two panels have agreed to accomplish. We ask the MILF to reflect on how we can arrive at this.

“We believe with reason and goodwill, we will overcome this current difficulty.”

“MILF position on BB’s delay”

This is the editorial for July 23-31, 2014 of Luwaran, the official website of the MILF Central Committee on Information. Luwaran editorials are construed as official MILF position. They must have the imprimatur of the vice chairman for information, Mohagher Iqbal, who is also the chief peace negotiator and chair of BTC.

1. In stating five intervening obstructions that slowed down the submission of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law to the Congress, the editorial blames the delay on the GPH.

First, it took the OP sixty one days to review the BBL draft, to be exact. The BTC formally submitted the draft to the OP last April 22; it finally received a copy of the draft bearing the comments of the OP last June 23.

Second, the four-tiered BTC-OP engagement never took place, except the fourth and highest when President Benigno Aquino III and MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met in Hiroshima, Japan last June 24. [This implies an agreement to consult each other during the review process. — ppd]

Third, the OP’s comments on the BBL — essentially the position pursued by the GPH peace panel — diluted the BTC’s text and have in many instances departed from the letter and spirit of the FAB and its Annexes, which are the basis of the crafting of the BBL. Moreover, the OP adopted a very conservative interpretation of the Constitution, which is a radical departure from what the government has been saying — and promised — that the flexibility of the Constitution would enable them to implement the FAB and its Annexes.

Fourth, many of the delays were caused by issues that had already been settled in the FAB and its Annexes but were kept coming back and forth at the instance of the GPH – examples, the reversion of terms: ancestral domain to ancestral domains, central to national, Bangsamoro people to Bangsamoro peoples, etc. (Italics and bold ours.)

Fifth, in view of the wide disparity between the two positions of the two parties, finding an agreed version takes some time. “Haste makes waste.”

2. Stretching protocol:Like the GPH, the MILF wants the BBL draft submitted to Congress on July 28. So, despite the Ramadhan, the MILF had agreed to have the “workshops” in Kuala Lumpur on July 8-11 and in Manila on July 18-21 without the presence of the Malaysian facilitator. The MILF is stretching the protocols of the engagement in order to catch up with commitment and come up with agreed version of the BBL.

3. Opposed approaches to the Question. Obviously, the government peace panel wants the MILF to accept a version of the BBL that may be constitutional but will not solve the Bangsamoro Question. On the other hand, the MILF overall objective is “to end tyranny, restore dignity and secure a bright and prosperous future all in the Bangsamoro Homeland. The current government proposals will not restore dignity to a people who suffered tyranny and will not secure a peaceful and prosperous future.”

4. What will move the process forward: The two MILF positions on the current discussion of the BBL it officially registered during the KL special meeting in KL are the following:

1. All those issues that are settled in the FAB and its Annexes will not be subject for renegotiation; and

2.  Settled language in the FAB and its Annexes will not be subject for renegotiation.

If both Parties only abide by these commitments, the process would really move forward faster and save them from some irritating moments in their current engagement. More importantly, the MILF will never renegotiate these settled issues. This is the reason that the current status of engagement is no longer negotiation but discussion and the GPH and MILF are not only partners but are engaged in problem-solving mode.

The Mountain to Scale

Ferrer, in her statement, is appealing to MILF to understand the reasons and circumstances behind the revision of the BTC draft and in goodwill accept the revised version which, by necessity must be within the parameters of the 1987 Constitution. She reiterates the commitment of the Government to entrench the Bangasamoro that will solve the Bangsamoro Question.

But Luwaran, in its editorial, presents the MILF position that it cannot accept the BBL version which may be constitutional but will not solve the Bangsamoro Question. It states the MILF position not to renegotiate issues and language already settled in the FAB and its Annexes. It states the MILF desire to have the BBL draft submitted to the Congress as soon as possible.

The two opposing position is the mountain that blocks the BBL draft – hence the Bangsamoro and the peace process – from moving forward. Clearly interesting, GPH and MILF are waiting for one of them to relent and yield its firm position.

Yesterday, July 25, President Aquino III met the BTC and told them (1) “I want to be able to push this [Bangsamoro Basic Law] with conviction.” (2) “Let’s approach this [drafting of the proposed BBL] with an open mind, see if everything is consistent with the CAB [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro], and limit the potential challenges.” (3) “Let us put ourselves in each other’s shoes” — saying that the Parties must work together to bridge the differences. (OPAPP Website, July 25, 2014: Aquino to push Bangsamoro law with conviction)

Will this remove the mountain? Note, however, that the President met the BTC, not MILF and Chairman Murad. It’s MILF that is rejecting the OP revisions.

The peace panels were set to resume their “workshop” yesterday, July 25, the same report said. Aquino urged them to finalize the draft bill soon; the Congress is concerned about the time frame for the bill’s enactment into law if it is not submitted soon. Virtually and order: “We want the Bangsamoro Transition Authority to be put in place next year, as early as possible.”

In all probability, the President will prevail. But what we see as the highest mountain to scale will remain – the lack of time to properly transition the Bagsamoro. Ferrer is guaranteeing a transition arrangement where the MILF’s brand of leadership will be tested”. Can this happen in nine months, or perhaps shorter? MILF has said one year is too short. In deference to President Aquino III, Chairman Murad shortened to three years the original time frame of six years.

Without proper transition, the Bangsamoro will be facing a very high mountain that GPH does not seem to see, blinded by its obsession to establish the Bangsamoro in June 2016 to complete the legacy of President Aquino III – seeing no mountain or molehill.