16th Congress can make history as “legislators-peacemakers


QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/06 May) – Members of the 16th Congress can make history before they step down on June 30, 2016 by “unlocking the door to a just peace” in their deliberations on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando B. Quevedo, said.

“Legislators are the key holders to a just and lasting peace in the Southern Philippines. In the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the peace process of more than 15 years is in their hands. They can lock the door to lasting peace if they so emasculate the BBl as to make the Bangsamoro self-determination a meaningless word. Or they can unlock the door to a just peace if they act as the final crowning peacemakers who will create a Bangsamoro self-determining territory worth its name, as part and parcel of the Philippine republic,” Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato, told MindaNews Wednesday.

During the dialogue with House leaders on Monday afternoon at the office of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Quevedo, who led a delegation of the Friends of Peace (FoP) where he is lead convenor, said the two houses of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate – “are the final bodies that are concluding the peace agreement that took 17 years” to negotiate.

“They are peacemakers in this sense, not to control it, not to emasculate it but to continue the peace process and the final point of the peace process is the approval” of what Quevedo says is a BBL that would respect the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination and provide genuine autonomy.

 PEACE. Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, Archbishop of Cotabato, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. and Fr. Roberto Layson of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Inter-Religious Dialogue flash the Peace sign after a 75-minute dialogue between House leaders and representatives of the Friends of Peace led by Quevedo on Monday afternoon, May 4. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

PEACE. Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, Archbishop of Cotabato, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. and Fr. Roberto Layson of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Inter-Religious Dialogue flash the Peace sign after a 75-minute dialogue between House leaders and representatives of the Friends of Peace led by Quevedo on Monday afternoon, May 4. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Christian Monsod, former chair of the Commission on Elections, a commissioner of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution, and an FoP member, said the Constitution is “not a bundle of legalisms to be debated upon by legal experts, to find nuances in the law that are not there. The Constitution is a people’s document .. meant to be read broadly and understood by the people themselves in the language of the people because it was meant for them.”

Monsod, also a member of the Peace Council that looked into the BBL, said “these are provisions in a peace agreement that’s been going on for 17 years . A lot of experts have reviewed these, these have passed through all kinds of legal scrutiny. So the benefit of the doubt must be in the BBL and it must be interpreted liberally because legislation is a part of the process and therefore the legislators are not only formulating policy, they are peacemakers, peacebuilders. I think the BBL must be interpreted that way.”

Monsod explained a principle in international law called “constructive ambiguity.”

“That’s how they bring the people together because a peace agreement is a very tough job for peace negotiators. So when there is a categorical emphasis on certain rights, the thing is to affirm both, and say ‘we will solve this over time.’ But in specific cases, the court can look at this. But on its face there is nothing wrong with it. There is nothing wrong for Bangsamoro to have its own audit office. Nothing. That’s up to the COA (Commission on Audit) to determine if they want to work with that independent office or if they want to set up a separate regional office of COA. If the (Bangsamoro) regional audit is doing well, adopts the policies and audit procedures of the central COA, again it’s a trustbuilding issue. Look at how well they’re doing their job and say ‘This is great. You are our regional office,’ period. There is no Constitutional issue.” (see other story)

Quevedo expressed concern that an “emasculated” Basic Law will “even make the Bangsamoro less powerful than the present ARMM.”

Lanao del Sur Rep. Pangalian Balindong, Deputy Speaker for Mindanao, said “one thing sure, it will be very hard to have a BBL that has less powers than the ARMM.”

Legislators as peace-builders

The Peace Council, which presented to President Aquino on Monday morning its report on its findings and recommendations on the BBL noted that the BBL must be understood in its proper context, that it is not an ordinary legislation but a product of a peace agreement that was “forged after decades-old peace negotiations, borne out of the country’s exhaustion with war,” and that negotiations wee done with the participation of international facilitators and observers.

“This does not mean, however, that the Congress, as the repository of legislative powers, is deprived of the exercise of its constitutional prerogative. On the contrary, understanding the nature of the BBL will place greater significance on the legislative process and put it in the proper perspective,” the Peace Council’s report said.

The legislative process, it added, “must be seen as an indispensable and final step to complete and implement the agreement. Legislation must be seen, therefore, as a continuation and finalization of the peace agreement. Legislators are not only policy formulators, they become peace-builders.”

“More than an alternative to independence or secession, the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region through the BBL must be seen as an alternative to war. Again, this is not to say that the threat of war is a Damocles sword that hangs above the Legislative’s head. This is just to emphasize that legislation, in this context, should be seen as a peace-building exercise,” the Peace Council said.

3rd time

This is the third time Congress will pass a law on autonomy for the Moro, after RA 6734 in 1989 and RA 9054 in 2001.

The Tripoli Agreement of 1976 between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) provided for the creation of an autonomous region comprising 13 provinces and nine cities.

The 1976 peace agreement collapsed as the MNLF protested among others, that the government violated the Tripoli Agreement in letter and spirit by creating two instead of one autonomous region. Shortly thereafter, then MNLF vice chair Salamat Hashim broke away from the MNLF to set up the MILF which it named “New MNLF” but later renamed to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Using his martial law powers, then President Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, issued Proclamation 1628 on March 25, 1977, creating two Regional Autonomous Governments (RAGs) with the then undivided South Cotabato, then undivided Davao del Sur, and Palawan and the cities of General Santos and Puerto Princesa voting against inclusion. The seats of office of the RAGs were in Cabatangan, Zamboanga City for RAG 12 and Cotabato City for RAG 9. The latter was taken over by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The two RAGs were inaugurated in 1979.

Marcos’ son, Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., presently chairs the Senate Committee on Local Governments which is deliberating the BBL at the upper house. 

Social Justice

After the Marcoses fled Malacanang at the height of the People Power revolt in February 1986, then President Corazon Aquino, created a Constitutional Commission to draft what would become the 1987 Constitution.

The framers of the Constitution provided for the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras.

“Reason tells us that a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region can close the centuries- old gap between law and justice and that we are on the cusp of a historic opportunity to make it happen,” 14 of the 18 surviving members of the framers of the Constitution said in a statement in January this year, two weeks before the January 25 Mamasapano tragedy.

The framers noted that the central theme of the 1987 Constitution was “social justice that calls for genuine social change,” that this is broader in scope and intent than the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions, and that “an interpretation of any relevant provision of the Constitution that results in war and abject poverty would be contrary to its intention,” they said.


Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong, chair of the House Committee on Muslim Affairs and an MNLF commander in the 1970s, recalled that when RA 6734 was passed in 1989, MNLF chair Nur Misuari complained it was crafted “unilaterally by the national government.”

The MNLF and the MILF boycotted the 1987 plebiscite to ratify the 1987 Constitution that mandated the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.

As mandated by the 1987 Constitution, President Corazon Aquino, mother of incumbent President Benigno S. Aquino III, and the first President after the Marcos dictatorship, created a Regional Consultative Commission (RCC) to draft the Organic Act for what would become the Autonomous Region in Mulsim Mindanao. The RCC was composed of Moro, settler and Lumad (Indigenous Peoples) representatives.

A number of RCC commissioners, however, complained that the final product, RA 6734 was so different from what was submitted.

Zacaria Candao, the ARMM’s first governor, told MindaNews in a 2006 interview that the RCC draft was “hindi nasunod” (not followed).

“Nung dumating kina (Speaker Ramon Mitra) lahat-lahat hindi nasunod. In fairness to the Regional Commission, ang na-envision nila doon was a strong autonomy. Pero ang Congress was looking at a different thing,” Candao said.

From out of the proposed autonomy areas of 13 provinces and nine cities, only four provinces voted for inclusion in the ARMM during the November 1989 plebiscite: Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.

1996 Final Peace Agreement

When President Ramos took over in 1992, he reopened talks with the MNLF and his administration succeeded in signing the “Final Peace Agreement” with the MNLF.

Loong said Misuari again complained that what would be RA 9054, the law that would amend RA 6734 and incorporate provisions of the 1996 peace agreement to strengthen and expand the region was, drafted “unilaterally by government.”

“Why? Because they were not part of the drafting of the Basic Law,” he said.

When RA 9054 was passed, Misuari and other MNLF leaders repeatedly said the law that Congress passed “rendered the autonomous region less autonomous than it was.”

In the 2001 plebiscite for what was supposed to have become an “expanded ARMM” as the 1996 peace agreement envisioned, only the province of Basilan and the city of Marawi voted for inclusion in the ARMM, making it a region of five provinces and one city. Lamitan town became a city in 2007, making it the second city in the ARMM.

Moro framers of Basic Law

Under the GPH and MILF’s Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on March 27, 2014, the proposed area of autonomy is the present ARMM, the cities of Cotabato and Lamitan, the six towns in Lanao del Norte that voted for inclusion in the ARMM in 2001, 39 out of a total of 208 barangays in six towns in North Cotabato that also voted yes in 2001, and two months prior to the plebiscite on the BBL, a resolution from local government units in areas contiguous to the proposed Bangsamoro or upon a 10% petition of residents of areas contiguous to the proposed Bangsamoro, seeking inclusion in the regional government.

A week after the signing of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Misuari told a gathering in Davao City of MNLF leaders and members that what the MILF gained was a territory “of five tiny provinces not even the size of the Cotabato empire of yore.”

Loong said that in this third attempt to legislate a law on the autonomous region, the Basic Law was drafted by a 15-member predominantly Moro Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) composed of eight nominees from the MILF and seven from the government. Mohahger Iqbal, chair of the MILF peae panel, also chaired the BTC.

A new future

In his speech on the submission of the draft BBL on September 10, 2014, President Aquino urged “our countrymen in Luzon and Visayas,” to “now open our arms for our Muslim countrymen. Let us respect the beliefs and rights of the indigenous peoples of our land. Instead of choosing to spread negative news and unfounded assumptions about our southernmost region, let us harness our knowledge and time to fully understand the history, culture, and narratives of our fellow countrymen. By so doing, we will further discover that we are really the same: like us, they aspire to see their children graduate one day, they dream of a life without fear at worry, and they desire to succeed as individuals.”

“We need to strengthen that trust, by supporting the immediate passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Let us not let go of the opportunity to bequeath a new future to the Land of Promise, and thus I urge you to walk with us as we march towards this realization,” he said.

Aquino said the country has been given “a rare chance to prove, not only to ourselves, but to the entire world, that we can achieve what was once thought to be impossible.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)