COMMENT: After the Bungling, the Scrambling

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 13 Aug) – No rhetoric and justifications can deny that the Office of the President (OP) legal team bungled the review of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) draft and fouled up its certification to the Congress by the President last July 28. The OP legal team obviously disregarded the agreed four-tier process and revised the BBL draft to strictly conform to the 1987 Constitution – in the process mangling it – without properly consulting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It only handed to the MILF the revised version.

MILF rejected the revised version. Government scrambled to repair the damage with a rare media blitz justifying the draft revision and assuring the entrenchment of the Bangsamoro on schedule. Despite “workshops” – not negotiations – in Kuala Lumpur , July 8 to 11, and in Manila, July 18 to 21 and 25 to 27 – to mend the draft for submission to the Congress on or immediately after the President’s State of the Nation Address on July 28, the Government (GPH) and MILF peace panels failed to come up with the agreed version.

They met for the fourth time in Davao City, August 1 to 10. While coming up short of sealing the agreed version of the BBL draft, as usual, they were optimistic in their Joint Statement: The Panels have reached agreement on substantial portions of the document, and have developed a shared understanding of the remaining challenges and unsettled issues, which they will bring back to their principals for further guidance.” They will meet again on August 18. Can they fulfill their commitment under pressure to submit the BBL draft bill to the Congress soon?

MILF Concerned.

The OP gave the MILF the revised version of the draft late afternoon of June 21 in Manila. The MILF legal panel reviewed it on the plane to Hiroshima and gave MILF Chairman Murad Ibrahim, Al Hadj, and Mohagher Iqbal a briefing in the evening of June 22, the eve of the opening of an international conference on peace focused on the on-going Mindanao peace process of the Philippine Government (GPH) and MILF (dubbed the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao, or COP-6). Iqbal is the MILF Central Committee vice chairman on information and head of the MILF Peace Panel and of the Bangsamoro Transition Committee (BTC) that drafted the BBL.

Iqbal and Ibrahim disapproved the revision. Together, they had an unscheduled meeting with President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III on June 24 shortly before the President keynoted the conference session for that day. During their short private meeting, 15 to 20 minutes, Murad conveyed in detail [inisa isa (one by one)] to the President their concerns about the revisions in the BBL draft.

In addressing the conference on June 23, Murad in his keynote address and Iqbal in his talk in one session hinted that all’s not well. But in his speech at the peace forum in Istanbul, Turkey on July 26, Iqbal expressed openly his disappointment that the OP revision diluted the BBL draft. Robert Maulana Alonto – member of MILF Central Committee, of the MILF Peace Panel and of the BTC – poured out in his Facebook posting his disillusionment laced with sarcasm. Luwaran, the MILF official website, in its July 8, 2014 editorial, strongly reiterated the MILF displeasure.

Leaks in the Dike

The Manila and Mindanao media have picked up the MILF concerns and the GPH justifications of the revision all in general statements. The details have been well-guarded secrets; so are the BBL draft and its revisions. But there have been “leaks in the dike” – from the statements of the parties and media’s “reliable sources”.

Item 1: About 70 percent of the nearly 100-page draft Bangsamoro law was either deleted or revised by Aquino’s lawyers, who reviewed the document for two months after it had been submitted in late April for vetting. A copy of the revised legislation seen by Reuters showed entire sections of articles on territory, resources, and government structure had been deleted or revised. (Bold Italics ours) (Iqbal: “Deal with MILF in peril: 70% of draft Bangsamoro law deleted, revisedby Reuters, August 7, 2014)

Item 2: The two panels have already settled two important issues among the contentious issues raised in the revisions made by the Malacañang review team, according to government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. In a statement, she said they had “made progress on two important articles pertaining to fiscal autonomy and the structure of the Bangsamoro government.” (Bold Italics ours).(Ferrer: Gov’t, MILF to resume talks on Bangsamoro bill”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 30, 2014)

Item 3: No one said the process would be easy, so it is not surprising that the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law has hit a snag. The cause has not been disclosed to the public although there are reports that the talks stalled over the creation of the Bangsamoro police force, fiscal autonomy and economic rights over waters within its jurisdiction. (Bold Italics ours) (Editorial – “Waiting for the Bangsamoro”, The Philippine Star, July 26, 2014)

Item 4: “We met over the weekend and made progress on two important articles pertaining to fiscal autonomy and the structure of the Bangsamoro government,” Coronel-Ferrer said. (Bold Italics ours). (OPAPP Website, July 28, 2014: “Aquino pushes for reasonable, just, acceptable Bangsamoro Law”)

Item 5: “We met over the weekend and made progress on two important articles pertaining to fiscal autonomy and the structure of the Bangsamoro government.” (Bold Italics ours) (Ferrer: GPH, MILF make ‘good progress’ in draft Basic Law”, OPAPP Website, July 28, 2014)

As seen in the five items, the revisions were on articles on (1)territory, (2) resources, (3) fiscal autonomy, (4) the structure of the Bangsamoro government, (5) the creation of the Bangsamoro police force, and (6) the economic rights of the Bangsamoro over waters within its jurisdiction. These cover all the FAB, the Annexes and Addendum on Bangsamoro Waters and Zones of Joint Cooperation – the addendum to the Annex on Power Sharing. There must be more.

Iqbal’s estimate that “About 70 percent of the nearly 100-page draft Bangsamoro law was either deleted or revised” with “entire sections of articles on territory, resources, and government structure deleted or revised” shows how massive and radical the revision is.

Seen from another perspective, the massive and radical revision may be further understood. The original BBL draft submitted was of 18 articles in 97 pages. According to leaked information, there are 298 revisions; the revised copy is 166 pages. On the average, that is 16 to 17 revisions per article. The revisions are much longer than the original for the 97 pages increased to 166 – 1.7 times or almost twice longer. If Iqbal said “about 70 percent” of the 97 pages have been revised, the revisions are more than twice (2.44 times) longer than the original.

Like a house, the BBL draft did not meet the standards of the President. He ordered it renovated. But the MILF – the builders and prospective occupants – that built the house according to an agreed plan approved by the President rejected the renovation. Now Government is scrambling to renovate the renovated house to make it agreeable to MILF, Government and the President.

By August 10

After the 10-day August 1-10 “workshop”, the fourth since the July 8-11 “workshop” in Kuala Lumpur, have the MILF and GPH peace panels come up with a BBL draft version mutually agreeable to them and to the President? For countless times, GPH has made it clear that the BBL draft must be according to the 1987 Constitution and the President has the last say.

MindaNews has aptly noted the tallest order of the “workshop” – how to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: “Apparently, a substantial part of the BTC draft was not acceptable to Malacanang and a substantial part of Malacanang’s proposed revisions was not also acceptable to the MILF.”

As culled from media reports based on the post-“workshop” press conference and “reliable” sources:

Item 1: By August 10: Most contentious issues have yet to be resolved, among which are “the delineation of powers under the categories exclusive, reserved and concurrent, as provided for under the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Annex on Power-Sharing”. Unknown is “the term ‘asymmetrical relationship’ between the central government and the Bangsamoro government, that has been removed according to sources who have read the BTC draft and the Malacanang-reviewed draft. (MindaNews, August 10. 2014: Where to after 10-day “workshop” on draft Bangsamoro Basic Law?) (Bold Italics ours)

Item 2: The MindaNews (August 11, 2014: GPH, MILF: draft Bangsamoro Basic Law done by Aug. 18 “In sha Allah), reported that the GPH and MILF panels when asked specific questions were evasive and uncomfortable.

Asked what will happen if they again fail to finish by August 18, Ferrer said: “The only way to go is forward so when we set a timeframe, it means that we will try our best to finish because we do know that every day’s delay also compromises the passage of the BBL within this year. We do have a big responsibility to accomplish this job as soon as possible. We are not shirking away from that responsibility and we hope to be able to meet the deadline.”

But she admitted what more to resolve: To “address the other items all the other programs that we have committed to do as part of the Annex on Normalization”. (Bold Italics ours)

During the half hour press conference they appeared uncomfortable when asked for specifics such as [1] what exactly are the issues that have yet to be resolved, [2] how many percent of the issues have been resolved, [3] how many of the 18 Articles in the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law are now “mutually acceptable.”

On the issues that have yet to be resolved, Iqbal said, “maybe what is more urgent is what are the major issues under discussion right now – power-sharing wealth-sharing, administration of justice, policing, etc. More specifically, “territory, powers of government, policing, admin of justice, transport, other issues.” There must be many more issues. (Bold Italics ours)

MindaNews asked: “Are you on the same page as to how many issues are still to be resolved? Ten? Seven? Five? Three? One?” Bacani replied, “about a handful would be a good description of how many more issues. About a handful.” Iqbal said they’ve “covered a lot of ground and settled a substantial part” but would not say what this “substantial part” is. (Bold Italics ours)

Asked about her earlier statement to Manila-based newspapers that they had reached an agreement over 70 percent of the 18 Articles, Ferrer told the press conference, “at this point let’s not talk in terms of percentages.” (Bold Italics ours)

Pressed with the question, “How many of the 18 articles are now ‘mutually acceptable’?”, Ferrer replied: “There are several articles that have been closed or almost closed except for a few remaining items, but the longest articles containing provisions that cover the parts of power and wealth-sharing annexes, because precisely they are long, there are more items that will still have to be agreed on.” (Bold Italics ours)

Item 3: OPAPP quoted (OPAPP Website, August 11, 2014: GPH, MILF reach substantial progress on draft Bangsamoro Law) Coronel-Ferrer: “Certain provisions that cover the Wealth Sharing and Power Sharing Annexesprecisely because they address different elements, we still have to agree on,” (Bold Italics ours)

Item 4: The Manila Times, in itsreport(August 10, 2014: Final Bangsa draft bill hangs as govt, MILF end negotiations), observed it was apparent “a substantial part of the BTC draft was not acceptable to Malacanang” and the “revised provisions were also rejected by the MILF.” On the progress of the “workshop” to forge a mutually agreeable draft,it noted: “Among the most contentious issues that have not been resolved are the delineation of powers as provided for under the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the Annex on Power-Sharing.” (Bold Italics ours)

Item 5: The Philippine Star (August 12, 2014:Gov’t, MILF fail to agree on wealth, power sharing) reported:

“[GPH and MILF]failed again to agree on major issues, particularly on wealth and power-sharing in the proposed Bangsamoro basic law when they ended a 10-day workshop yesterday.“Sources said constitutionality of provisions on wealth and power-sharing, as well as other ‘difficult’ issues like judiciary, policing and transportation and communication, has remained as stumbling blocks.”(Bold Italics ours)

“Speaking over Catholic radio station dxMS yesterday, Ferrer said both sides had resolved some of the misunderstandings on the contents of the preamble and other ‘basic articles’ during their initial meeting.” (Bold Italics ours)

“Ferrer said the government and MILF panels have agreed to continue reconciling each other’s position on other important provisions, particularly those pertaining to transition concerns, the structure of the Bangsamoro entity and its supposed relationship with the national government.”

“They still need to iron out articles on fund grants for the proposed Bangsamoro political entity and the annual budget needed for its operation, she added.

To Recapitulate

The reports from MindaNews (except the reference to “sources”), the OPAPP Website, The Manila Times and The Philippine Star were all sourced from the Parties, mostly from GPH Panel Chair Ferrer. Take note of the categories of revisions that we have highlighted in bold Italics. They have affirmed the six categories of “leaks” and more. The Parties’ evasiveness – evading six categories of specific questions (See: Item 2) – indicates the extent and contentiousness of the issues that have mired and are still miring the BBL draft.

Will the Parties be able to seal the BBL draft version mutually agreeable to them and, most importantly, acceptable to the President when they meet again on August 18? That will be doing what they have failed to do during the 21 days of the four workshops. Both MindaNews and The Manila Times have noted the seemingly irreconcilable positions of GPH and MILF.

According to a persistent report, the last recourse is to elevate to the President and the MILF Chairman the issues which the Parties cannot resolve. Certainly, President Aquino III and Chairman Murad are not in the position to resolve the issues by discussion. Will it be a “toss-coin” scenario? Aquino and Murad will flip a coin. Whoever wins his position prevails.

If the Parties fail to reconcile their positions in the next “workshop”, the fastest way to submit the BBL draft bill to the Congress is for Chairman Murad to see President Aquino III and yield to the Government the MILF position. Will a miracle make this happen?

(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at