Bangsamoro in transition (2): Too much to do, too little time

2nd of a series: Too much to do, too little time

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/02 July) — When President Benigno Simeon Aquino III delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 28, it will likely be Eid’l Fitr or the eve of Eid’l Fitr, the end of the month-long Ramadan. On that day, he is expected to push for his “legacy” project — the new autonomous political entity called the “Bangsamoro” — that would be set up, if his administration’s roadmap to peace is followed, on June 30, 2016, the same day his six-year term ends.

But establishing the Bangsamoro is the last step in Aquino’s roadmap. Before then, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that would serve as the Constitution of this new autonomous political entity with a ministerial form of government, has to be submitted to Congress and certified urgent for legislation, then submitted to the voters in the proposed Bangsamoro area in a plebiscite for ratification, so that the transition government – the 50-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) the President will appoint – can take over from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which will then be deemed abolished.

In his SONA on July 22 last year, Aquino called on Congress to pass the BBL before yearend 2014, to allow for more time for the transition from the ARMM to the Bangsamoro. At that time, the government and MILF peace panels had finished only one of four annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the 15-member joint government-MILF Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) tasked to draft the BBL, was still drafting it.

Participants and organizers of The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP-6) flash the Peace sign on the first day of the three-day seminar last week. The seminar discussed obstacles and opportunities in the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Photo courtesy of REPUSM
Participants and organizers of The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP-6) seminar in Hiroshima  flash the Peace sign on the first day of the three-day seminar last week. The seminar discussed obstacles and opportunities in the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Photo courtesy of REPUSM

The BTC submitted the 97-page draft law on April 22. Malacanang took two months reviewing it and the MILF finally received the reviewed draft on June 21, its legal team briefing MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, also BTC chair, on the proposed revisions evening of June 22, in Hiroshima, where both were speakers at The Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP-6) seminar.

Ebrahim and Iqbal sat at the dignitaries’ chairs onstage while the President addressed the COP-6 participants late afternoon of June 24, their heads bowed most of the time, their facial expressions a bit morose except for one brief moment when Murad smiled at what the President was saying.

Unknown to most of the participants, Ebrahim and Murad had met with the President for about “15 to 20 minutes” just before he delivered his speech.

Neither Ebrahim nor Iqbal gave details about what transpired during the meeting with the President. But in a speech in Istanbul, Turkey on June 26, Iqbal said the Malacanang-proposed revisions had “heavily diluted” the BTC draft, in effect rendering the future Bangsamoro less autonomous than the ARMM it seeks to replace (see Part 1).

Only 703 days left

In Iloilo City on June 27, President Aquino told reporters that he asked Murad during their Hiroshima meeting “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.”

He said Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-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 Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) quoted the President as saying.

When the President delivers his SONA on July 28, he will have only 23 months – specifically 703 days — to the end of his term. Targeting January 2015 as the month for the BTA to take over may not be realistic. Preparing for the plebiscite alone will require at least six months.

The most important factor – the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law – has yet to be made acceptable to the parties that negotiated the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) before “both sides can fully support and endorse” it to Congress.

Iqbal had warned in Turkey that there are 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.”

History repeating itself

The former will further delay the process of legislation while the latter raises the possibility of history repeating itself: a law passed by Congress that is not acceptable to the party government negotiated with.

The case of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the post-signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement is an example. The MNLF had expected that the law Congress would pass would embody the provisions of the 1996 peace pact to allow for the ARMM’s expansion and to give it more powers.

The ARMM that the MNLF was going to inherit was supposed to be the vehicle for their envisioned autonomous government but the MNLF lamented that the law Congress passed — RA 9054 — rendered the ARMM even less autonomous than it already was.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, eyed to be the chair of a special House committee that would handle the proposed BBL, told MindaNews Tuesday that if the draft can stand the test of constitutionality, there should be no problem.

Rodriguez made the comment a few hours before the Aquino administration suffered a major debacle: the Supreme Court unanimously declaring unconstitutional the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) or “Presidential pork barrel.” The Aquino administration is also facing another petition with the Supreme Court asking it to declare unconstitutional the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed with the United States in April.

Rodriguez said he is optimistic that the House would pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law even before it takes a break mid-September, the Senate approves it by November and the plebiscite could be held by December, or if there’s a delay, by March.

He said daily hearings could be conducted in the capitals of the six regions of Mindanao in August and September to hasten passage of the urgent bill.

Whether or not the President still has enough political capital to push for this “urgent” legislation has to be factored in.

Six months

Rodriguez said the Commission on Elections (Comelec) can begin preparations for the plebiscite while Congress is deliberating on the bill.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez had earlier told MindaNews that they would need at least six months to prepare for the plebiscite, inclusive of the period for information campaign.

Comelec Commissioner Luie Tito Ferrer Guia, co-chair of the Committee on Bangsamoro Plebiscite Matters, told MindaNews Tuesday that they are “still sticking with six months lead time to have adequate preparation time and to make us comply with logistical requirements.”

He said they are also “waiting for the final draft of the BBL as it will be our definitive guide as to our final plans.”

Guia said the Comelec has been preparing for the plebiscite since December 2013when they formed the Bangsamoro Plebiscite sub-committee. “We just cannot commit funds for the logistics side of it since we don’t have authority yet.”

“Likewise, our preparatory timelines for the 2016 elections would be significantly affected by the intended plebiscite, thus we have to anticipate activities in any eventuality or scenario,” Guia said.

“We need to know the final design of the plebiscite under the BBL as that would determine the quantity and design of forms and supply that we would have to procure,” he said.

Legislation and ratification are just two of still several steps towards the abolition of the ARMM and the installation of the transition government called the “Bangsamoro Transition Authority.”

The longer the delay in these two major steps, the shorter the period to transition into the regular Bangsamoro. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

Tomorrow: Transitions within the Transition