COMMENT: Between the Lines: What?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/31 July)– In our Mind da News article, “SONA 2014 at a Glance”, July 29, we commented in passing on the President’s four-paragraph statement concerning the “Bangsamoro” – all that he said in subhead “Peace” of his State of the Nation Address 2014. We referred to the original Tagalog text of the SONA with English subheads.

The four paragraphs:

Matapos ang mahabang panahon ng hidwaan at napupurnadang negosasyon, naibalik nanatin ang tiwala. Pruweba po nito: Noong nakaraang Marso, nilagdaan na ang Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Pero simula pa lang ito ng ating pag-usad sa landas ng malawakang pag-unlad sa Mindanao. Wala pong makakatangging napag-iwanan ang ARMM. Gusto po nating bigyan ng pantay na pagkakataon ang lahat ng Pilipino, kaya nga dapat may boost up, para naman maka-catch up ang ating mga kababayang nasa laylayan. Halimbawa, sa budget na imumungkahi natin para sa 2015, 5.17 billion pesos mula sabudget ng DPWH ay nakalaan para sa imprastraktura ng ARMM.

Kasalukuyan na po nating pinapanday ang panukalang Bangsamoro Basic Law. Humihingi po tayo ng pang-unawa sa ating Kongreso ukol rito. Mahalaga pong maging masusi ang paghimay natin ng bawat probisyong ilalatag. Sa abot ng ating makakaya, isusulong natin ang isang panukalang batas na makatuwiran, makatarungan, at katanggap-tanggap sa lahat.

Kung maisasabatas nga po ang Bangsamoro Basic Law bago matapos ang taon at maisasagawa ang kinakailangang plebesito, mabibigyan ng isa’t kalahating taon ang Bangsamoro Transition Authority para ipakita ang positibong pagbabago. Kung maaantala naman ito, natural pong iikli rin ang panahon para mapatunayan na tama nga ang landas ng kapayapaang tinatahak natin.

Our translation in English as close as possible to the original text:

After many years of conflict and off-and-on contentious negotiations, we were able to restore trust [of the Moros]. The evidence: Last March, we signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

But this is just the beginning of our slow and challenging endeavor to extensively develop Mindanao. No one can deny that the ARMM has been left behind. We want to give all Filipinos equal opportunity; so we have to help our very poor countrymen to catch up. As an example, for 2015, P5.17 billion from the DPWH budget has been allocated for the ARMM infrastructure.

At present, we are still forging the BBL bill. We are asking our Congress for understanding concerning this. It is important to carefully examine in detail every provision proposed [in the BBL draft]. Within the best of our ability, we will submit a proposed bill that is reasonable, just and acceptable to all.

If the BBL can be enacted and ratified in a plebiscite before the end of 2014, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority will have one and a half years to show the positive change. If the passage and the plebiscite are delayed, the time to prove that the peace we are exploring is on right path will shorten.

The Puzzle:

It should be noted that the President did not reveal the controversy over the BBL draft that had delayed its submission to the Congress; instead, he made it appear all is well. However, the concern he expressed on the possible delay in the enactment and ratification of the BBL – in stark contrast to the certainty he pronounced in his SONA 2013 – said a lot, especially to those who have been closely following the Bangsamoro affair. What lies between the lines should be properly appreciated.

What puzzles us is the factoring in of the ARMM. What is behind the seeming incoherence?

It is true that the signing of the CAB on March 27, 2014 marked the end of the long (in the 17th year) conflict and off-and-on contentious peace negotiations. But why is that just the beginning of the extensive development of Mindanao (simula pa lang ito ng ating pag-usad sa landas ng malawakang pag-unlad sa Mindanao)with reference to the ARMM as the starting point? His program to develop the ARMM started in late 2011?

That the ARMM has been left behind in economic and social development is true. That the Moros are at the lowest socioeconomic level (ating mga kababayang nasa laylayan) is true. “Laylayan” means “hemline of the skirt” – not mini-skirt but old Filipina skirt flowing down the ankle. And he describes the efforts to develop the ARMM as “painfully slow” – the connotation of “pag-usad” which means “moving on the floor on one’s buttocks” as a paraplegic (one with paralysis of both legs) does.

While the ARMM is Muslim Mindanao and is the core territory of the Bangsamoro, politically it is not the Bangsamoro. The CAB is a compendium of agreements to entrench the Bangsamoro, not to develop the ARMM. It is unthinkable the President does not know that. But he is equating the ARMM to the Bangsamoro. Could it be just a slip? That’s the puzzle.

The President and MILF think differently.

The President is thinking of the transition period of the Bangsamoro as a test to MILF and a gauge of the peace process. To him, the enactment and ratification of the BBL “before the end of 2014” will give “the Bangsamoro Transition Authority … one and a half years to show the positive change”. Any delay will shorten “the time to prove that the peace we are exploring is on right path”. He is saying that “positive change” is the “right path of peace”.

Is MILF thinking in the same way? What is positive change that will prove peace to be on the right path? Can this change be done in one and a half years? Will MILF have that much time?

To MILF, positive change is essentially changing the “unacceptable status quo” that has already been agreed and signed. This means establishing a new government structure and setting up new mechanisms and modalities. It also means reorienting values towards the vision of the MILF founder, Ustadz Salamat Hashim. MILF has manifested that one year is too short for the proper transition of the Bangsamoro.

As we see it, the new government structure with suitable mechanisms and modalities are aimed to firmly establish the Bangsamoro before the first regular election of its regular officials. The BTA is the precursor of the elected regular officials. It necessarily means that transition proper ends with the onset of the election. In the present scenario, the most the BTA can have is one year to transition the Bangsamoro; it can be shorter. Will it be able to do its task?

In such a short transition, the Bangsamoro will not be firmly established before the election of its regular officials; MILF will not be able to “show positive change” and its chances of winning the election to continue leading the Bangsamoro will be slim. Are the President, his peace team and government concerned about this?

Is there a Plan B?

As reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (July 30, 2014: Gov’t, MILF to resume talks on Bangsamoro bill), the GPH and MILF peace panels will meet in Davao City from August 1 to 10 to continue reconciling the original BBL draft with the revisions and comments of the Office of the President. Any of the following can happen:

First: GPH agrees to restore much of, if not fully, the original BBL draft. Still, there is no guarantee that the Congress will not revise such BBL bill to conform to the 1987 Constitution.

Second: The Parties will be unable to forge a mutually acceptable version of the BBL draft by August 10. They will continue meeting. Even if a bill is submitted to the Congress this year, it might not be enacted by the year end.

In either case, the BBL may be questioned in the Supreme Court.

When he expressed in his SONA his concern about the delay in the submission of the BBL bill to the Congress, was he entertaining the worst case scenario of (1) the MILF rejecting the BBL enacted by the Congress; or, (2) the aborting of the establishment of the Bangsamoro by June 30, 2016 due to delay in the promulgation of the BBL?

Is there a Plan B? It appears so from the SONA – remote as it might be. If the worst happens to the Bangsamoro political settlement, the President will pour more assistance into the ARMM to fulfill his promise to allow the Moros “to catch up” in socioeconomic development.

In their various press statements, OPAPP Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles and GPH Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer have emphasized that the BBL draft will be according to the standards of the President and that the President has the last say.

While hoping for the best, we cannot overlook the messages between the lines and their probable repercussions. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Patricio P. Diaz writes “Comment” and “Mind Da News” for MindaViews. The former editor in chief of the Cotabato City-based Mindanao Cross and later the Mindanao Kris, Mr. Diaz, now based in General Santos City, has written extensively about the Bangsamoro struggle and peace processes since the 1960s).