MINDANAO 2015: 8 session days left to resurrect a “dead BBL” or revive a “BLBAR on its death throes”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/08 January) — As expected, Congress failed to meet its self-imposed deadline to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) on December 16, its last session day before taking a month-long break. But whether or not it can still pass the law under the Aquino administration is a big question mark as there are only eight session days (Mondays-to-Wednesdays) from the resumption of sessions on January 19 to February 5, when Congress adjourns for the May 2016 election campaign. 

The sessions also fall within the run-up to the first anniversary of the January 25, 2015 Mamasapano Tragedy, the game changer in the 18-year old peace process between the Philippine Government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  Exactly a year later, the Senate, acting on Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s manifestation, will reopen  its investigation, for additional hearing on the tragedy that Senate Committee Report 120 referred to as a “massacre.”

Sixty-six persons were killed when the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police swooped down on Mamasapano that Sunday dawn to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin hir aka Marwan who carried a US $5 million price on his head (PhP 220 million at January 2015 exchange rate of US $ 44 to a dollar). Marwan was killed. And so were 66 Filipinos — 44 from the SAF, 17 from the MILF and five civilians – in a tragedy that could have been avoided had the peace process mechanisms of coordination been observed.

The Bangsamoro peace process, aimed at ending decades of armed conflict and establishing the Bangsamoro — a new autonomous political entity that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and supposedly be the legacy of the Aquino administration — became a casualty as well.

ALMOST EMPTY. The plenary hall of the House of Representatives is almost empty as the debate on House Bill 5811 or the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region continued in this photo taken morning of June 10, 2015. The period of interpellation was suspended as Congress adjourned sine die that night. It will resume interpellation on August 4. MindaNews file photo by Toto Lozano ALMOST EMPTY. The plenary hall of the House of Representatives is almost empty as the debate on House Bill 5811 or the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region continued in this photo taken morning of June 10, 2015. The period of interpellation was suspended as Congress adjourned sine die that night. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO 

Deliberations on HB 4994 and SB 2408, the bill drafted by the 15-member joint GPH and MILF Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) and submitted to Congress in ceremonial rites held in Malacanang on September 10, 2014, were suspended. And when deliberations resumed in April, a sober debate on the provisions could not be had amid the anti-Moro hysteria

The Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT), the independent body that monitors the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) that the GPH and MILF signed on March 27, 2014, expressed concern, in a press statement on January 3, over the “ongoing, indeed increasing, uncertainties regarding the possible outcome of the legislative process” on the BBL.

Dead, dying

Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., chair of the Committee on Local Government, had in fact declared late last year that the BBL was “dead” as the House and Senate had come up with their respective substitute bills, HB 5811 and SB 2894, both titled “Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” (BLBAR).

But while he declared the BBL “dead,” Marcos’ press release on December 18 referred to his own BLBAR as “dying Bangsamoro bill” and “practically on its death throes.”  “There may still be a slim chance it could be saved, it added.

It quoted Marcos as saying: “In our version, if we finish the period of interpellation I think we can find a compromise so we no longer have to debate on the proposed amendments in the plenary.” He suggested that the Senators send him all their proposed amendments, “agree on what they could, and let the Committee propose the amendments to speed up the process.”

But in his press release on January 4, Marcos, who is running for Vice President, was not as optimistic on passing hthe law. “We will see what we can do within our remaining session days but even if the BLBAR fails to pass, I am confident the next Administration will support efforts to find lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao because it is crucial for the development and progress of Mindanao and the entire country.”

 “Plan B”

MindaNews has repeatedly asked Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles on what their Plan B is if Congress fails to pass the Bangsamoro law but she has also repeatedly replied “there is no Plan B.”

“We’re not giving up. On the peace table are miracles waiting to happen,” she said in mid-November. Similar replies were sent on subsequent questions on Plan B.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, according to a January 5 report of Philippine Star said, “we have no Plan B, we’re determined to pass the BBL.”

Senate President Franklin Drilon on the other hand expressed concern that the passage of the BBL “may again be put in peril due to the issues surrounding the Mamasapano incident” which he said, “created an immense political storm that seriously affected the peace process which we had hoped would end decades of armed conflict in that part of the country,” Drilon said in a press release posted on the Senate website on Thursday.

He said the BBL would be at the Senate’s top priority but also expressed hope that the peace process will continue “even if the 16th Congress runs out of time” in passing the law.

 “We must not abandon the many successes we have made so far in the Mindanao peace process,” he said.

For Marcos, Plan B, if Congress fails to pass the BLBAR, “should be to follow what Plan A is all about: pursue peace efforts in Muslim Mindanao.”

“No matter how long the journey to peace will take we will get there if all parties continue to show goodwill and sincerity,” he added.

The Senate has yet to finish its period of interpellation.

The House of Representatives terminated theirs before adjourning for the holidays on December 16. Interpellation took all of six months and two weeks since it started on June 2, a period marked by lack of quorum due to chronic absenteeism. It is expected to proceed to the period of amendments when sessions resume on January 19.

In a state of flux  

“Everything is still in a state of flux,” Mohagher Iqbal,  chair of the MILF peace panel and the BTC, told MindaNews on Dec. 17.

“I’m a little happy about the House decision but in the Senate, Enrile is still on page 4 (of his reported at least a hundred page list of questions). Everything is still in a state of flux,” Iqbal said.

“The hard work continues,” GPH peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement on December 17, as she asked everyone to “re-charge our energies and prepare for the critical period of January (19) to February 5.”

The proposed law on the Bangsamoro, Ferrer maintained, “is not simply a document, nor is it dead. It is about charting a better future now, not later, for our country, with respect and dignity for all, regardless of faith or ethnicity.”

She said the delay may not matter to those who live outside of the conflict areas “but it matters a lot to the people in the region who have been most affected by the conflict.”

House Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Pangalian Balindong told MindaNews  on December 18 that the Bangsamoro law was “hovering between life and death” but added that  “political will can still resuscitate it.”

Substitute bills

The substitute bills — HB 5811 and SB 2894 — have been criticized as envisioning a future Bangsamoro that is less than the ARMM that it seeks to replace, the Senate version further criticized for allegedly reducing the Bangsamoro into a mere local government unit.

The BTC on July 29 passed a resolution virtually rejecting HB 5811 and vowing to support the passage of a BBL “in its original form.”

Copies of the resolution were sent to Belmonte and Drilon, along with a three-page
“Partial List of Substantial Issues on House Bill 5811” consisting of 28 “substantial amendments” made by the Ad Hoc Committee on the BBL (AHCBBL) and the House Committees on Appropriations, and Ways and Means, which the BTC said “are contrary to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).”

The FAB was signed by government and the MILF on October 15, 2012 while the CAB was signed on March 27, 2014.

The appeal to restore deleted substantial provisions, however, was turned down by the AHCBBL chaired by three-term Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, now a candidate for mayor of Cagayan de Oro City.

On September 21, the BTC sent Senate President Drilon a letter, attaching an initial list of 87 issues that need to be addressed to ensure the future Bangsamoro adheres to the CAB and is not just a mere LGU.

CAB-compliant law

Given that there are only eight session days left, can the BLBAR versions – both of which are unacceptable in their present form to the GPH and MILF peace panels  – be amended to restore what the BTC says are substantive provisions and make BLBAR hew closer to the BBL?

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told MindaNews that the “agreed version” of the BBL is “the bottomline.”

The “agreed version” is what was submitted to Congress – the draft done by the BTC and reviewed and vetted by various agencies and finally agreed upon by the BTC and the Office of the President.

“Whatever is contained in the CAB, yun ang ide-demand namin na it has to be implemented because it is a finished agreement,” Murad said, adding it is “very clear to Malacanang that we will not accept a BBL that is not compliant with the CAB.”

Sister Arnold Maria Noel of Balay Rehabilitation Center and Mindanao Solidarity Network said she is happy the interpellation in the House is over and it can now move to the period of amendments but “as to whether a CAB-compliant law will be passed within eight days, I don’t know.”

“Much depends on the amendments that will be proposed and accepted,” said the Manila-based Catholic nun who has been attending the sessions of the House of Representatives more frequently than most of the representatives, to monitor deliberations on the BBL.

Guiamel Alim, a member of the Council of Elders of the Consortium on Bangsamoro Civil Society said that while the end of interpellation “lessens the chance for deletion of important provisions, we are still thinking of the more than 28 provisions that need to be restored.”

Samira Gutoc of the Young Moro Professionals Network told MindaNews she is not happy with the termination of the period of interpellation at the House “as it has not addressed quorum quandaries that have sacrificed platform for debate and time for substantive discussion that can impact on public consciousness.”

“Mamasapano rage”

“The public was not educated by supposed public representatives,” Gutoc said, adding she is not optimistic that a CAB-compliant law will pass within these eight session days “when the flames of hysteria can be fanned anew with Mamasapano rage.”

Congress suspended deliberations on the BBL immediately after Mamasapano to give way to the probe on what happened. Deliberations resumed only in April.

In aftermath of the Mamasapano tragedy, however, was yet another tragedy. As Cardinal Orlando Quevedo noted in his speech before a media gathering in Cotabato City in late July, at the legislative hearings to investigate what happened, “several of our legislators expressed the biases, prejudices, and mistrust of the Christian majority against Moros in general and against the BBL in particular.”

These biases were sown during the period of colonization when relationships between Moros and Christians were characterized by continuing conflict, negative experiences with Moros, the diversity of religious beliefs and culture. Dormant through many decades and occasionally rearing its head as in the Ilaga-Barracuda armed conflicts during Martial Law, bias and prejudice suddenly erupted into the open in the wake of the Mamasapano tragedy,” he said.

“Wholesale public dishonesty”

Lawyer Raissa Jajurie, a Commissioner of the BTC, said that with only eight session days, “it will still be a very tight schedule to pass the BBL” but “the more problematic aspect is the content. Will the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law work for amendments or revise the BLBAR and make it CAB-compliant?”

Mary Ann Arnado of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus said “BBL has long been dead. It is not even under consideration in Congress as what was subjected to interpellation was not BBL but BLBAR. President Aquino and his administration did not deliver and to say there is still hope.. is pure and simple dishonesty and deception. And those who merrily clap on this show is equally guilty of large-scale, wholesale public dishonesty.” 

For Christian Monsod, former chair of the Commission on Elections and one of the surviving members of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Philippine Constitution,  the move to terminate the period of interpellation in the House is “a constructive solution to the obvious filibustering to obstruct legitimate debate.”

At the Senate, Monsod said he does not think Enrile will resort to filibustering “although the Senate bill is more difficult to navigate because of the many amendments…. some  based on wrong assumptions, such as the Local Government Code has primacy over the organic law on Muslim Mindanao.”

Antonio La Vina, Dean of the Ateneo School of Government and a member of the government peace panel in the last days of the Arroyo administration in 2010, told MindaNews that theoretically, “the House can still approve the Bangsamoro law in the remaining days in January and February. The Senate, too, if period of interpellation is closed in January, can vote on the bill by February. There would then be a bicameral conference committee as the two bills are very different.”

But La Vina said there are two questions to ask: “First, will the House have a quorum twice in January-February to approve the bill and then to ratify it? I doubt it given that the campaign will accelerate already by that time. Second, will the Senate and subsequently the Bicameral Conference approve a CAB-compliant bill/law? I have serious doubts about that given the state of the Marcos bill and how it will probably look like after the period of amendment. I think the two panels might have to begin a transition document soon as it looks likely we won’t have an acceptable BBL by the end of the Aquino administration.”

Roadmap to peace

In late May last year, La Vina proposed at the Experts’ Forum of the Cotabato City-based Institute of Autonomy and Governance to consider passing on to the next administration the passage of the basic law instead of rushing the  passage under the Aquino administration of  “a bill that creates a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region with lesser autonomy and powers than the ARMM.”

At the start of his administration in 2010, President Aquino vowed he would not pass on the Bangsamoro issue to the next administration.  

So determined was he that when the peace process was not moving fast enough, he met with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim on August 4, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan. There, both parties agreed to fast-track the peace process by signing an agreement within the first half of his six-year term (2010-2013) so that implementation can be done in the second half (2013-2016).

Under the roadmap to peace set by the FAB in late 2012, after the passage of the BBL and its ratification, the ARMM is deemed abolished and the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) is to take over until the first elected officials take their oath noon of June 30, 2016, the same day the Bangsamoro government – which will be parliamentary in form,  is established.

June 30 is also the same day President Aquino steps down from office.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)