Bangsamoro in Transition (1): Submitting an “acceptable” Bangsamoro Basic Law

1st of a series: Submitting an “acceptable” Bangsamoro Basic Law

HIROSHIMA (MindaNews/01 July) — For the second time in the history of the peace process between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met in Japan last week, again in the hope of moving the process forward from its present critical stage of uncertainty.

The June 24 meeting, held just before the President addressed The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP-6) seminar at the Sheraton Hiroshima Hotel, came amid “concerns” which, as it is now unfolding, are “very serious concerns” that the Malacanang-proposed revisions on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) will render the envisioned new autonomous political entity called “Bangsamoro” less autonomous than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that it seeks to replace.

President Aquino sought that first ever face-to-face encounter with Murad on August 4, 2011 in Tokyo, hoping that the peace process would be fast-tracked so that an agreement would be reached within the first half of his term (2010 to 2013) and implementation would be done within the next half (2013 to 2016).

In his 17-minute speech at the COP-6 seminar on June 24, Aquino said of that nearly two-hour first meeting with Murad in 2011: “I sometimes wonder: if that meeting did not take place, where would we be today? Fortunately, that meeting, my first face-to-face encounter with my brother Chairman Murad, was a breakthrough.”

President Aquino thanks Japan for its assistance to the Bangsamoro peace process, in his keynote address at The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao seminar in Hiroshima afternoon of June 24. Aquino met with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (onstage, second from left) before delivering his speech. To Murad’s right is Dr. Kamarulzaman Askandar of the Universiti Sains Malaysia and to his left is Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yukazi. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas
President Aquino thanks Japan for its assistance to the Bangsamoro peace process, in his keynote address at The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao seminar in Hiroshima afternoon of June 24. Aquino met with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (onstage, second from left) before delivering his speech. To Murad’s right is Dr. Kamarulzaman Askandar of the Universiti Sains Malaysia and to his left is Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yukazi. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

It is not clear if his second meeting with Murad in Japan is another breakthrough as details of the “15 to 20 minutes” meeting here have not been divulged. It was the fifth meeting between Aquino and Murad since 2011, the three others were at the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on October 15, 2012, the launch of Sajahatra Bangsamoro on February 11, 2013 and the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on March 27, 2014.

What is certain is that Murad, accompanied by MILF peace panel chair and Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) chair Mohagher Iqbal, raised with the President the MILF’s “concerns” about the Malacanang-proposed revisions on the 97-page Bangsamoro Basic Law amid reports that the BTC draft had been “watered down.”

Murad declined to disclose details about their “concerns” but told MindaNews “inisa-isa ko sa kanya yung concerns”(I cited the concerns one by one).

He declined to say how many “concerns” they raised. He said the President told them he cannot answer them then, that he would check with those who reviewed the draft and promised to look into these “concerns.”

“Heavy diluted”

The MILF received a copy of the Malacanang-reviewed draft containing the proposed revisions on June 21 in Manila, one day short of two months after its submission. Murad and Iqbal were briefed by their legal team about Malacanang’s proposed revisions evening of June 22, in Hiroshima. Both were scheduled to speak at the seminar the next morning.

The proposed law was drafted by the BTC whose 15 members — eight from the MILF, seven from the GPH — the President appointed in February last year. The BTC submitted its draft to the Office of the President on April 22, expecting it would be sent to Congress and certified as urgent by the President, when Congress resumed sessions on May 5 but until it adjourned sine die on June 11, the draft 97-page, 18-article draft was still with Malacanang.

The draft has not been made public since its submission on April 22. Only the BTC, the peace panels and Malacanang are privy to its contents and the contents of the Malacanang review. But BTC chair Iqbal in his June 26 speech in a forum in Istanbul, Turkey, said the draft BBL “mainly copy-pasted the essential elements of the CAB.”

Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, had explained at the opening of the International Conference of Cotabato at the Notre Dame University on June 6 that the draft was undergoing a “thorough process of review” by the Office of the President to ensure Congress gets a “more refined and strengthened” draft.

The political roadmap, she said, is “firmly in place and we are fully confident that we are installing a process which will ensure, within an acceptable and doable time frame, that the BBL which will be enacted by Congress, will live up to people’s expectations as a measure worthy of broad-based support, and one that is faithful to our Constitution.”

In the same Cotabato conference, Senate President Franklin Drilon, in a message read for him by Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, assured the Senate’s support to the peace process and committed to pass a “unifying and integrating” Basic Law.

As it is turning out, the “more refined and strengthened” draft the MILF received from Malacanang on June 21 is apparently not acceptable to the MILF.

Although Murad and Iqbal in their speeches at the seminar on June 23 kept mum about the state of the draft BBL — opting instead to just providing hints about the problem — Iqbal broke his silence during a forum on the peace process in Istanbul, Turkey on June 26, a copy of his speech posted on the MILF’s website on June 29.

Malacanang’s proposed revisions, he said, “heavily diluted the original proposal coming from the BTC.”

He said their lawyer commented that the law that would come out based on Malacanang’s proposed revisions, “would be worse than RA 9054,” the law that supposedly expanded the ARMM, the regional body created under the administration of Corazon Aquino, purportedly in pursuit of the 1987 Constitution provisions on the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera. Critics and the incumbent President Aquino himself had referred to the ARMM as a “failed experiment.”

RA 9054 was supposed to be the legislative act embodying the provisions of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) but the MNLF led a boycott of the 2001 plebiscite on the supposed expanded ARMM, claiming that the law Congress passed rendered the ARMM less autonomous than it already was.

“Rejecting the rejection”

Iqbal warned in Turkey that the challenges ahead “appear daunting” and called for a “timely rescue” of the peace process.

“Unless the Parties and the supporters and friends of the peace process come to the timely rescue and prevent the foreseeable collision of approaches of the two parties, the much-heralded signing of the CAB in Manila, Philippines last March will be overshadowed by bickering, blaming, and shaming,” he said.

He cited two possible consequences: that the draft BBL will not be submitted to Congress when it resumes on July 28 or the government would proceed to submit to Congress the Malacanang-revised draft “without the concurrence of the MILF.”

After that euphoric Japan meeting in August 2011, the government peace panel submitted its proposed draft peace agreement, a “3 for 1” package that the MILF quickly rejected. Iqbal claimed then that the gap between government’s and the MILF’s drafts was “heaven and earth” as the government’s proposed package was still the ARMM formula.

The post-Tokyo talks in Kuala Lumpur scheduled August 22 to 24, 2011 ended abruptly on August 23 when the MILF rejected the government’s draft at the negotiating table and then government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen replied, “We reject your rejection.”

In the post-Hiroshima talks, it is the MILF “rejecting the rejection” as it sees government’s “heavily diluted” draft had practically rejected the BBL draft crafted by the joint GPH-MILF Commission.

Iqbal in his Turkey speech said they have a “very simple and straightforward” position on the BBL: “All those explicitly expressed and provided for in the CAB will no longer be the subject of negotiations. They are finished and settled. It is therefore nonsensical to raise them anew. However, all those, which are not expressly provided but fleshed out by the BTC, as part of its mandate, could be the subjects of subsequent engagement between the Parties. If reasons and consistency prevail, there is no way this controversy cannot be settled.”

He lamented the moves of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), finding it “amazing” that “instead of defending the essence of this historic document (CAB) or at least inhibited itself out of delicadeza,” OPAPP, “the very government office tasked to oversee the conduct of the peace process…. virtually led the review team of the OP to overhaul almost the entire proposal of the BTC.”

MindaNews sought Deles’ reaction but she has yet to send her reply. No statement on the issue has been posted in the OPAPP’s website but in her June 6 speech in Cotabato, she said  “all parties concerned are striving to meet the standards set by the President at the historic signing of the CAB for the BBL to be a law that is “equitable, practical, and empowering and which serves the interests of the entire nation.”

A draft “both sides can fully support and endorse”

The President wants the draft BBL to be acceptable to all, particularly the parties that negotiated the peace agreement so that “both sides can fully support and endorse” it.

In Iloilo City on June 27, President Aquino said he will study the draft BBL before it is submitted to Congress.

“I have to confess, it’s siguro about six inches thick, ‘yung the law itself and also ‘yung comments by both parties. I have reserved Sunday to go through each and every one of those pages and hopefully, I can be of help to get both sides to really be fully supportive of the measure,” the President told reporters there, according to a report posted by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

The PCOO has not reported an update on the President’s Sunday review of the draft.

The President also told reporters in Iloilo that during his brief meeting with Murad in Hiroshima, they “discussed the output of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.”

“Now, we’re putting in all the details and I asked him 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 and come up with the proposed measure and send it to Congress, even before the SONA,” the PCOO report quoted Aquino as saying.

The President said Deles met with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. on June 26 “to hasten the process of coming up with the proposed measure that both sides can fully support and endorse.”

“We will be exerting all efforts to ensure that this measure is passed in a timely manner because the dream still is to give the new Bangsamoro government time to demonstrate its abilities… We’re hoping that all the steps will be done that they can sit in office by January 2015,” the PCOO quoted the President as saying. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

Tomorrow: Too much to do, too little time)