(Author previously served as chief government negotiator and presidential adviser on the peace process)
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/14 Sept) — I have two initial suggestions to Congress, if I may, as it works on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will replace the ARMM. One, make it truly “inclusive” for all and not only for the MILF. Two, extend the transition period to somehow give it a fair chance of succeeding. Of course, there are several other enhancements but let me focus on these two because they are, in my humble view, crucial.
MILF A MINORITY. Let’s face it. The Bangsamoro area is not predominantly MILF. In fact, MILF is a minority in the present ARMM although it admirably carried the torch to secure what is rightfully due to the whole Bangsamoro. In fact truth to tell, many areas that suffered in the conflict, up to now, view the MILF as the “enemy” responsible for bringing misery. Others seriously doubt MILF’s capability to make things better for the Bangsamoro given the depth and magnitude of the challenges at hand. And there are many others who begrudge the MILF for taking up arms to virtually blackmail government and the public into giving them concessions in the peace agreement and their proven incapability to even marshall and whip into line their own forces becoming so-called armed “rogue elements” in their own controlled areas. Whatever it is, let’s give the MILF the benefit of the doubt that it can hack it, to use a common lingo.
LIKE A BUS RIDE. This journey is akin to a bus ride, with the MILF now at the driver’s seat. To be able to successfully reach its ultimate destination, the “peace bus” must have as passengers not only the MILF. Everyone must be on board to include the MNLF, the mainstream Muslims, the present Muslim political leaders, or even the so-called “rogue elements” if they wish to take a hitch in this bus ride. But those who prefer to miss this bus ride, let it be. They can be dealt with accordingly later in the day. Or they can take the next bus ride if they wish and converge.
ONLY ONE ROAD MAP. Congress, in passing the BBL, must work for “convergence.” It must consolidate the two peace agreements: the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF and this new CAB with the MILF. It must craft a common road map, not only for the MILF but for all Muslims and others for the “peace bus” to travel on. One way for Congress to do this is to reach out to the MNLF for them to take the bus by seeing to it that the results or output of the so-called Tripartite Review of the MNLF peace agreement which I initiated during my time at OPAPP be consolidated with the new agreement with the MILF in the proposed law. This way, there is common feeling of ownership of all factions and groups.
MISUARI. Although there were token efforts to bring in Nur Misuari’s MNLF and be part of the Transition Commission to ensure convergence in the latter stages of the MILF peace talks, OPAPP’s obvious disdain towards Chairman Nur Misuari was not conducive in bringing in the desired results. That Nur’s group being tagged as a “spent force” by Malacanang and that the MNLF had already squandered its chance when they governed the ARMM with Misuari as governor following the 1996 peace agreement obviously did not at all help. “He blew it,” was a usual refrain. And mind you, there was indeed some basis for this. But methinks, it could have been better handled. Anyway, that’s now water under the bridge.
TRIPARTITE REVIEW. A little flashback. Sometime in 2006 when I was working at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) I started the so- called Tripartite Review of the 10-year old MNLF 1996 peace agreement due to the unending angst of Nur Misuari about alleged non-implementation of certain commitments by the government. “Tripartite” because it involved the MNLF, the GRP (government) and the OIC,(Organization of Islamic Cooperation, then Conference, with Indonesia as lead country). Nur always shouted on top of his voice in complaint during all OIC ministerial meetings. He created waves because he was received like a head of state by Islamic countries. The MNLF was granted an “observer” status to represent Muslims in Southern Philippines. (MNLF still, up to this time, enjoys this exclusive franchise). We thought then it would be best to do a Tripartite Review even as we negotiated with the MILF so the MNLF would not feel being sidelined and also so that the public and the Muslim world would know whereof Nur was talking through his hat or where GRP indeed had to do more. OIC sent Egyptian Ambassador Al Masry who became my close friend. We even went together as far as going to the MNLF camp of Ustadz Habier Malik in Panamao, Sulu to check things out. (He is the same Malik who, by the way, figured prominently in last year’s Zamboanga siege where he reportedly died as a result, although lately, I have been getting audible signals from the ground that he allegedly survived and is now up and about somewhere).
ROAP MAP. Government’s road map at that time was, and should still be, simple. Any signed agreement with the MILF and any output from the MNLF Tripartite Review would all be consolidated in Congress when it passes the enabling law. Hence, what would come out from the legislative mill would be for all Bangsamoro, not only for the MILF.
TRANSITION AUTHORITY. Here’s something I feel, equally important to consider. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) will be constituted upon the approval of BBL with President Aquino making presidential appointments to constitute it. BTA will take over from the defunct ARMM to govern the new government. It will be MILF-led and will start entrenching and operating the new Bangsamoro. I propose that the BTA, led by the MILF include proportionate representatives from the MNLF, the traditional political leaders or tribal leaders, even “rogue elements,” if they so wish, and civil society. I knew that there was an effort to bring in the MNLF earlier but I knew it was a token gesture that MNLF of course rejected.
LONGER TRANSITION. Let me go to my second point. In the proposed BBL, the length of transition time in allowing the MILF agreement to make it work and show positive results is too short. It should be extended. If Congress approves the BBL even in the best case scenario by December 2014, a plebiscite will be held 120 days therefrom or by April 2015. This is a crucial stage because the affected areas will vote whether they want “in” or “out” of the Bangsamoro area. If we are not careful and prudent, the initial shocker will be that the new Bangsamoro territory may even lose some areas and will be smaller than the present ARMM. This will be a serious initial setback. But by making the BTA multi-membered and inclusive and the transition period extended, it stands a better chance of surviving the first challenge in the plebiscite.
MOVE ELECTIONS. Most importantly, if the elections are held on 2016 as envisioned or about one year after the plebiscite, the MILF and the other groups will have no time to organize as a political party, capacitate themselves and earn public goodwill to be able to fairly compete with the entrenched political leaders. Most crucial is that they will lack time to show positive results and convince the “doubters.” In that light, the MILF and/or its candidates will stand no fair chance of winning.
BETTER 2019. Instead of setting the Bangsamoro elections in 2016, Congress should move it to 2019 to coincide with the next local elections. This will allow the MILF-led BTA enough time to perform and “deliver” and show to the Bangsamoro and to the world that they can make a difference and the new framework governance unit, indeed, is the correct formula for them. A shorter period will prematurely jeopardize and throw to waste what everyone fought and worked for. However, if by 2019, there’s not much done or nothing much has changed, then let’s all forget it. But we did try and gave it our best shot.
PNOY’S LEGACY. An inclusive law and longer period to entrench will ensure a lasting durable legacy that President Aquino shall be remembered for. An early debacle in 2016 will immediately relegate him to the dustbin of history.
FEDERAL. My final point. If this Bangsamoro formula works, we have one foot inside the federal system. If the whole country eventually decides to dismantle a Manila-centric government and shift to federal, the soon-to-be Bangsamoro Federal State can very well be the harbinger. Then we can have the Federal State of Davao or Federal State of Zamboanga, Federal State of Ilocandia, of the Ilongos, and so on and so forth. We are already regionalized and our federal states can just follow these regional groupings. Mark my word: with the special concessions given to the Muslims, other Filipinos will also demand for equal opportunity. If we all succeed in this, we ultimately leave the fate and destiny in the hands of the locals who best know what is good for them and whose status and well-being as citizens will be determined by how they handle their affairs and charter their own destiny. And no longer kowtowing and feeling dependent on or endlessly blaming Imperial Manila. This can be a turning point for all. Who knows….
But for sure. Congress is in the cusp of making history. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jesus “Jess” Dureza served in various capacities under the nine-year Arroyo administration, including as government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF from 2001 to 2003 and as Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. He was Press Secretary during the aborted signing of the already initialed government-MILF Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in August 2008).