Bangsamoro in the SONA: two minutes and two oversights

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews /29 July) — Two minutes and two oversights.

Those who were anticipating an important announcement from the President on his supposed “legacy” project — the Bangsamoro, the new autonomous political entity that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by June 30, 2016 – waited for an hour before he finally talked about it for two minutes out of his 92-minute State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The two-minute talk disappointed many as there was no update on the status of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), no mention of the next steps taken by both the government (GPH) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels to come up with a draft that “both sides can fully support and endorse.”

Unlike last year’s SONA, there were no specific calls made on Congress and the public.

In his SONA on July 22 last year, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III called on Congress to pass the BBL before yearend 2014, and the public to support the new autonomous political entity. He also assured the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that “anumang mapagkasunduan natin ay ipapatupad ng pambansang gobyerno” (whatever is agreed upon would be implemented by the national government).

At that time, only the Framework Agreement on the Bangsmaoro (FAB) and two of four annexes to the FAB had been signed but the President was emphatic that peace was “abot-kamay” (within reach).

In Monday’s SONA, there were no such calls, and the opening paragraph on the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on March 27, 2014 did not sound as enthusiastic as last year’s “abot-kamay” peace.

The signing of the CAB notwithstanding, the President said nothing about peace being “abot kamay” in Monday’s SONA. But in a general listing of his administration’s achievements, he said “just and lasting peace in Mindanao” is “already advancing.”

The President said a lot has been achieved through trust and “we have no intention of breaking this trust.” He gave assurance his administration “keeps its word.”

Two oversights

Among those inside the House of Representatives while the President was delivering his SONA were Mohagher Iqbal, MILF peace panel and chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the body tasked to draft the BBL and some members of the BTC.

The President, however, failed to acknowledge their presence.

While his advisers may consider that a minor oversight, a major oversight was the fact that the President could have made the SONA meaningful for the Moro constituents by greeting them “Eid Mubarak” in celebration of Eid’l Fitr, the end of the month-long Ramadan which coincidentally fell on the day he delivered his SONA.

Earlier, he had declared July 29 a national holiday in celebration of Eid’l Fitr but the Muslims’ most important religious festival fell on July 28 following the sighting of the new moon on July 27.

“Fair, just, acceptable to all”

Instead of reiterating last year’s call on Congress to ensure the passage of the law by yearend, the President on Monday merely asked for “pang-unawa” (understanding) while the draft is being scrutinized per provision so that what would be submitted to Congress would be a draft bill that is “makatuwiran, makatarungan, at katanggap-tanggap sa lahat (fair, just and acceptable to all).

Last year, he urged Congress to pass the law before the end of 2014 to give enough time to prepare for the elections of the new Bangsamoro government in 2016 but last Monday, Aquino sounded tentative: “If we are able to legislate the Bangsamoro Basic Law before the end of the year and conduct the necessary plebiscite, we will be able to give the Bangsamoro Transition Authority one and a half years to show positive change.”

“Should this be delayed, however, the period for proving that it was right to choose the path of peace will naturally be shortened,” the President said.

The MILF had earlier pushed for a seven-year transition period, one year of the as pre-interim – but agreed to a shorter period following the meeting between President Aquino and MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim on August 4, 2011 where they agreed to fast-track the peace process, sign the peace agreement in the first half of the Aquino administration (2010-2013) so that the second half (2013-2016) will be for implementation.

The MILF-led 15-member BTC submitted the draft BBL to Malacanang (Office of the President) on April 22, expecting it would be submitted by the President and certified “urgent” when Congress resumed sessions on May 5. Congress adjourned sine die on June 11 without receiving the draft.

“Heavily diluted”

Malacanang handed over the reviewed draft to the MLF only on June 21 but the MILF raised concerns that Malacanang’s proposed revisions had “heavily diluted” the BTC draft.

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, also the BTC chair, raised these concerns during a meeting with President Aquino in Hiroshima, Japan, on June 24, minutes before he delivered his keynote address at The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao seminar at the Sheraton Hotel there.

On June 27 in Iloilo, the Presidential Communications Operations Office in its report said the President told reporters that he asked Murad in Hiroshima “if it would be possible to meet sometime next week, either their panels or we, in particular, or our designated representatives to thresh it out (concerns about the draft BBL) and come up with the proposed measure and send it to Congress, even before the SONA.”

The BTC passed a resolution on July 3 raising their concerns about the reviewed draft and elevated the matter to the peace panels who, despite three meetings – July 8 to 11 in Kuala Lumpur, 18-21 in Manila and 25-27 also in Manila – failed to reach what President Aquino had hoped for on June 27, a draft “both sides can fully support and endorse.”

Aquino met with the BTC members for nearly four hours on July 24 to discuss the still unresolved issues but by then, the resolution of these issues was no longer in the hands of the BTC as it had elevated the matter to the panels on July 3.

PNoy’s Eid’l Fitr gift

Noraida Abo, Executive Director of the United Youth of the Philippines-Women (Unyphil Women)in Cotabato City had wished that President Aquino’s Eid’l Fitr gift to the Bangsamoro was “for him to recommend the BTC BBL to Congress so it can attend to it immediately.”

Members of the Sulong Bangsamoro Movement deliver their messages on the peace agreement during a rally on Monday morning at the Cotabato City plaza. MindaNews photo by Toto Lozano
Members of the Sulong Bangsamoro Movement deliver their messages on the peace agreement during a rally on Monday morning at the Cotabato City plaza. MindaNews photo by Toto Lozano

On Monday morning, at the rally at the plaza in Cotabato City, the Sulong Bangsamoro Movement said, among others, that the CAB must be implemented in letter and spirit “not diluted and mangled” and that a “diluted proposed BBL is anti-peace.” They also called on President Aquino to “not repeat the mistake of the past.”

“Mr. President, the Bangsamoro is also your boss,” a message on the streamers said.

In Davao City, Irene Santiago, chair of the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW) said that if the President’s vision was transformation, the President missed a “great opportunity to tell our people that peace in Mindanao is one of the pillars of that transformation.”

“The pernicious problems hat beset this country are rooted in exclusion. And today his SONA excluded the peoples of Mindanao just when they most needed the Congress and the Senate to hear the President’s firm commitment to the creation of a transformed entity called the Bangsamoro,” Santiago added.

Prof. Octavio Dinampo of Sulu said the CAB in particular “is not only running out of time in its implementation, but more worrisome if the Philippine Congress would not fast track the passage of the BBL as proposed by the BTC. For while the issue of its being watered down by Congress on its own convenience is a possibility – and hoping it will not – what is totally unacceptable is an alleged bogus BBL that would play the role of a substitute to the one submitted by the people.”

CAB is not only about BBL

Naguib Sinarimbo, a member of the legal team of the MILF peace panel, said the President’s singular focus on the Bangsamoro Basic Law “betrays the government’s lack of a comprehensive implementation strategy of the CAB.”

Sinarimbo, who served as ARMM Executive Secretary from December 2009 to December 2011, said the CAB is “not only about the Bangsamoro Basic Law although it’s the most important aspect of the agreement.”

He said the President should have outlined a “comprehensive implementation strategy” that may include immediate socio-economic program, pursuit of the transitional security arrangements aimed at improving the security condition in the Bangsamoro such as the grant of amnesty, etc.

“These are implementable aspects of the CAB even without waiting for the passage of the BBL. This brings us to the most essential decision for government to shift the locus of engagement between the parties, now partners post agreement, from the negotiating panels to an implementing agency of the government. Otherwise, it will be a never- ending negotiation,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)