MINDA DA NEWS: Belmonte’s Assurance Puzzling

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 7 Jan) – Let’s get this straight. The earlier the 16th Congress can pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law during the remaining two sessions of its Second Regular Sessions that will adjourn sine die on June 12, 2015 – January 19 to March 20 and May 4 to June 11 – the better it will be for the peace process in Mindanao. However, for the Congress to issue unrealistic timelines through the media will only confuse. This appears to be what has been happening.

The first timeline the House of Representatives gave for the passage of House Bill 4994 was by December 17, 2014; this was revised to February 27, 2015; then, reset to “early” part of March “with optimism”, the Philippine News Agency (December 11, 2014) citing “solons” or by the “end” of March “we hope”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (December 15, 2014) quoting Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Luwaran (January 4, 2015: Speaker Belmonte assures plebiscite on BBL held by June) replicated a report by the Manila Bulletin on the previous day citing House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. as promising “that the house leadership will work hard to meet its deadline to enact the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in February so that the plebiscite for the new political entity Bangsamoro can be held on or before June 30”.

The Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation (www.ndbcnews.com.ph) in Cotabato City replicated the Luwaran report on the same day adding that Belmonte had given “February11, 2015” as the House target date with Rodriguez corroborating and saying the approved HR 4994 will be transmitted to the Senate.

However, the “February 11” target date needs clarification. The Manila Bulletin report said Rodriguez “maintained that his panel is dead-set on approving the final draft of the Bangsamoro measure (House Bill 4944) on February 11”.

Earlier, the Manila Bulletin (December 27, 2014: Bangsamoro plebiscite seen to be held in June) reported that Rodriguez’s panel will resume its hearings on January 19 for the governors and city mayors of the Bangsamoro area and on January 20 for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), all factions in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and representatives from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

According to Rodriguez, the plenary debates on HB 4994 will be on February 16 to 17, 23 to 25, 2015 during which the House is expected to approve it on second and third reading.

What looks confusing in the latest Belmonte timeline reported by the Manila Bulletin on December 27 and 28, 2014 and January 3, 2015 and replicated by the Luwaran and Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation News in Cotabato City?

First: the “February 11, 2015” target date is for the Rodriguez panel, the Ad Hoc Committee on Bangsamoro Basic Law, to approve its report for the plenary set on February 16 and 17, 23 and 25. The approved HB 4994 will most probably be transmitted to the Senate on March 2 for concurrence.

Second: Belmonte says the President will sign the BBL in March so the plebiscite can be held in June. Does he mean the House version of the BBL only? Or, does he presume that within fifteen session days – March 2-6, 9-13 and 16-20 – the Senate will be able to pass its version, SB 2408, and the Bicameral Conference Committee reconcile the House and Senate versions? The Congress adjourns on March 21.

This can be done if the Senate only adopts in toto the House version – something that has never been done. In the case of RA 9054, the Senate thoroughly scrutinized the draft.

Third: Belmonte and Rodriguez are speaking from different frequencies.

Fourth: Rodriguez is incoherent and confusing. In the December 15 Philippine Inquirer report, he said he was hoping his committee would be able to submit its report for plenary debates in March, stating, “We will have about three weeks of plenary debates. We hope to finish this by March 30.” Last December 27, he told the Manila Bulletin, the plenary will debate and pass HB 4994 in five by the end of February 2015.

Why did he extend the February 27, 2015 timeline to March 30 with good reasons then fold back to February with the constraints unchanged?

Let’s see how time plays out. While we are puzzled, the fulfillment of Belmonte’s promise will be most welcomed by the MILF, the Moros and all other stakeholders. The burden on the promise is the passage of a good BBL – resting fully on the Congress.

The Luwaran editorial (January 2, 2015: The year to watch) for the week January 1-7 imposes that burden. The opening paragraph is clear: “2015 is the year of reckoning vis-à-vis the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Its fate is hanging in the balance. We should watch how this year unfolds itself and how Congress shapes the destiny of this proposed law.”

It recalls the process the Draft BBL had gone through before its certification to the Congress:

[1] “… the BBL has passed through rigid scrutiny and rigorous process involving not only the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the Peace Panels of the government and the MILF but also the Office the President (OP) and the BTC-MILF. The scrutiny did not end there but President Benigno Aquino III personally read through the document.”

[2] “Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and President Aquino also met to thresh out the six remaining unresolved issues as a result of these multi-tiered engagements that finally led to an “agreed version of the BBL”. This version was formally signed by the 14 Commissioners of the BTC, and submitted to President Aquino through the OP.”

[3] “On September 10, last year, the same version, certified as urgent bill, was transmitted during a ceremony in Malacañang Palace to Congress by President Aquino through Speaker Sonny Belmonte and Senate President Franklin Drilon.”

MILF has fully reposed its trust in President Aquino to deliver his promise: “To this day, the MILF has never wavered in believing in the sincerity and commitment of the Aquino Administration to deliver. That commitment has been made consistently and on almost countless occasions. Specifically, the commitment was and still is: ‘We will not sign an agreement that we cannot implement’.”

That “special commitment” has re-formed and reaffirmed the MILF positions relative to the Constitution:

First: “This is the reason that the GPH Peace Panel – the MILF understands the wisdom – saw to it that all the provisions of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) do not violate the Constitution.”

Second: “This is also the reason that the MILF consistently maintains that the Moro Question or Problem, which the two Parties agreed to solve right at the outset of their peace negotiation in 1997, cannot be addressed through the confines of the current Constitution, which is too restrictive and shallow. Besides, the issue is not a legal question but political in nature; hence, the BTC is also mandated to proposed amendments to the Constitution to ensure that the agenda of the talks will be fully settled.”

All in the Philippines want peace in Mindanao: “Similarly, we also believe that Congress, the Supreme Court, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), the business community, the Church, and everybody are one with the government in establishing peace in Mindanao. They want a genuine peaceful settlement of this armed conflict. They want a peaceful and progressive Philippines.

A good BBL is imperative: The key to this bright future, WE BELIEVE, is for Congress to pass a good BBL. The BBL is not an ordinary legislation. The BBL, as noted above, was crafted by the BTC and had passed through multi-layered engagements with the letter and spirit of the FAB and CAB taken into full account. These two historic documents did not come so easily; they came into being after 17 long years of harsh and prolonged negotiations, interspersed with three major wars and almost countless number of bloody confrontations between government and MILF forces.”

The BBL is a historic legislation. Despite the time constraint, the Congress should not sacrifice the “good BBL” to the desire of the President to pass it “as early as possible” or to the impatience of some sectors that may be adverse to the image of the Congress. The time constraint could be causing the puzzling timelines.

Passing a “good BBL” may sacrifice the transition period. However, by recent moves and pronouncements of the MILF leaders, they understand this and are preparing for the eventuality of a “token transition period”. With a “good BBL”, establish the Bangsamoro and MILF is prepared to do its best to make it work – this is what we see as MILF’s challenge in reposing its trust in the wisdom of the Congress.

[Author’s Note: Mind da News, the alternate of COMMENT, is a comment on current news. The author may be contacted at [email protected].]

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