ADVOCACY MINDANOW: Iligan City and Bangsamoro

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/19 October) — It was not planned. But I unexpectedly walked into a consultation forum on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in a downtown hotel in Iligan City a few days ago. I had really wished earlier to attend any one of the on-going BBL consultations to get a feel of how the stakeholders themselves view (or fear?) the MILF Peace Agreement. Or how the peace panels deal with those concerns. Was I glad I unexpectedly walked into one!

Coming from Davao City, it took only 45 minutes via Cebu Pacific to new Laguindingan Airport, about 35 kilometers at the outskirts of Cagayan de Oro. (I gathered the lacking navigational lights will be operational soon. In the meantime, far-away Lumbia airport tower assists. No wonder there are no night flights in such a modern hub.) It took only about one hour of drive from the new airport to Iligan City. I would have really preferred the Davao- CDO land trip that would have given me the joy and luxury of stopping over along the way at our Seagull Mountain Resort high up in the clouds at 4,000 feet closer to the sky. But a long 7-hour land trip could be at another time.

POWER PLANT — I was to meet up in Iligan City with international investment “whizman” ALOYSIUS “Nonoy” COLAYCO and his partner VICENTE “Vic” CENIZA (both Jardin Davis veterans) to look into plans of POWER SOURCE PHIL. INC. (where I now serve as senior advisor) to set up a power plant there for the LAFARGE cement factory. It was during our call on both Iligan City Mayor CELSO REGENCIA and VICE MAYOR RUDERIC MARZO where I learned that a forum that morning was underway on the BBL at Caledon Pension House downtown. Mayor CELS, a former police director, had to rush to go. I dropped everything and proceeded to the venue.

JAMPACKED –Proceedings were already ongoing when I discreetly walked into a jam-packed function room and got seated at the back hoping I would come unnoticed. But no sooner had I settled down when CONG. VICENTE “Varf” BELMONTE Jr. spotted me and came to my seat to welcome me. He offered a place up front but I politely declined. (Many just don’t know how good it is to be just in the audience — a liberating feeling after years of being “up front”.) Cong. “Varf” ably skippered the forum all throughout making known to all that inputs gathered during the day he would submit to Congress which is now working on the proposed law. I had earlier planned on sneaking out also unnoticed to catch up with my LAFARGE meeting but with the announcement about my presence and requesting that I also give some remarks later in the day, my early exit plan was no longer possible. But that was propitious. And yes, I was glad I sat through.

INFORMATIVE — I found the forum informative and refreshing. All those who had something to ask or say got their chance on the microphone. The crowd was multi-sectoral. Judges, lawyers, businessmen, IPs, barangay reps, plain residents — even kibitzers were all there. I thought the whole town was there through their reps. The resource panel, headed by no less than GPH Panel Chair MIRIAM “Iye” CORONEL-FERRER fielded the questions, clarified and quieted some apprehensions. They were simply engaging, adept and down-to-earth. The forum somehow exorcised some lurking phantoms that many ILIGANONS were fearful about. Nonetheless, you can’t blame them for their angst. They are in the immediate peripheries of the proposed Bangsamoro territory (adjoining Marawi and Lanao del Sur) and they had previous bad experiences with the MILF. Former SECRETARY SENEN BACANI, a panel member who had served former Philippine presidents and doing ground work principally in agriculture Mindanao, was a moderating, experienced voice with his clarity and distinctive competent demeanor. Add to this were the curt and succinct repartees and explanations of lady chair “IYE” FERRER whose voice came through as reassuring (and alluring!)

WHY DIVIDE? — I was particularly struck by an eloquent ATTY. ZARAGOSA who bewailed the “divisiveness” that the setting up of a Bangsamoro would inflict on a nation that ought to be united. He drew from the contemporary dividing lessons of the Berlin Wall of the East-West Germany; the North-South Vietnam, North-South Korea divides; the Gaza Wall, etc. He was asking “why should the Bangsamoro be specially allowed to have their own separate world distinct from other Filipinos when all of us Boholanos, Cebuanos, non-Muslims, Ilocanos and specially those in Mindanao suffered the same experience of exclusion and poverty that Muslims complain about”. He claimed that we were all common victims of history when foreign colonizers divided us all as a people. Interesting points indeed.

SOVEREIGN CHOICE — What provinces or areas will ultimately comprise the Bangsamoro territory was thoroughly explained with emphasis on the sovereign prerogative of inhabitants to either “opt in or opt out” of the Bangsamoro territory during the plebiscite. The bottom line is: at the minimum, at least two (2) provinces must vote “yes” otherwise the Bangsamoro may end up like the Cordillera’s “autonomous region that never was” because only one province opted “in”. Although Iligan City is definitely ” out” and not ” in” as part of the proposed Bangsamoro, the common expressed concern was about the six Muslim-dominated barangays with a total area of about 20,000 hectares that may be “detached” from the city if (yes, if) the residents will ” opt in” during the plebiscite. Some distinguished legal minds, notably some judges, raised legal points to question such eventuality.

RESOURCES — The sensitive issue on inland waters and the use of natural resources by the Bangsamoro was expectedly raised. They worried on how non-Bangsamoro consumers could avail of those resources since the Bangsamoro would take over these natural jewels. Suggestions on how implementing gaps could be bridged were also submitted. Even the rumors about some “fast operators” cashing in on the proposed Bangsamoro setup “selling” positions in the proposed bureaucracy, including police slots were quashed. Why “Bangsamoro” is now the new buzzword to replace “Muslim Mindanao” was explained. Indeed, if non-Muslims like Lumads or IPs or even Christians can be inhabitants within the new autonomous territory, to refer to it as “Muslim Mindanao” will not fit.

LUMADS –The Indigenous Peoples (IPs) also aired their own angsts, apprehensions and yes, hopes too. With around 35 tribal groups in Mindanao whose ancestral domain areas also overlap or are within the Bangsamoro, the tribes were evidently in clear search for clarifications and assurances of mutual respect and recognition of their own exercise of the right to self-determination. Re-assuring words from the Moro and IP members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) present were helpful in clearing some misapprehensions. MILF Panel Member DATU ANTONIO KINOC, BTC members SAID SHEIK, TIMUAY MELANO ULAMA and TALIB ABDULHAMID BENITO took turns in dealing ably with raised issues. Even one questioner who at the outset declared an emphatic “NO to Bangsamoro” appeared assuaged and enlightened after a response from the panel. Former MAYOR FRANKLIN QUIJANO whom I have not seen for ages, came forward and gave his own pitch urging everyone to help contribute to bring clarity to the discourse.

“WHAT IF?” — One significant information volunteered by one of the BTC members was about MILF’s resolve and steadfastness in not abandoning the peace track whatever is the outcome from the Congress (on the final BBL) or from the Supreme Court ( if constitutional issues will be raised). One panel/BTC panelist announced: “To the credit of the MILF, it significantly downscaled its claim for their right to self-determination to the barest minimum by abandoning secessionist intentions and resolving to submit to the final decision of the Philippine sovereign authority.” This declaration alone is re-assuring enough given the “what if questions” lurking in many minds apprehensive on what the MILF will do if some provisions of the comprehensive agreement will be substantially altered in Congress or in the Supreme Court. Then we were informed about the first stage of the decommissioning (or disarming) of the MILF with the “warehousing and padlocking” of their crew-served weapons for starters. Examples of crew-served weapons are the shoulder-fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and armaments that are considered offensive weaponry that usually require more than one person (or a crew) to handle or operate. Then there was mention of the ongoing feverish pace in organizing MILF’s political arm called the Bangsamoro Justice Party that will compete with other mainstream political parties in the plebiscite and the elections. This, hopefully, will be the start MILF’s political coming of age — transforming and transitioning from an armed revolutionary group into a political party that seeks reforms through democratic ways by participating in mainstream politics.

“STAY THE COURSE”— When, towards the end, I was called to say a few words, I took the microphone and indeed stuck only to a few words knowing that this forum was to be for Iliganons and I was only an observer. Describing the whole exercise as “inspiring and enlightening”, I expressed what everyone in the hall, I surmised, was sharing silently in common: that we should give peace a chance, that whatever the challenges are up ahead or how bumpy the road ahead may be, especially when the more difficult stage of implementation starts, that we all must “stay the course”. Otherwise we will squander this rare opportunity of coming close to what every Mindanaoan has long dreamt of. We may never have this same historic opportunity at another time…. Ever. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jesus “Jess” Dureza served in various capacities under the nine-year Arroyo administration, including the posts of government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF from 2001 to 2003 and as Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process).

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