Q and A. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III: “It makes more sense to push for BBL first .. but the simplest would be straight to federalism”

On the wall of the receiving room of the office of the Senate President on the 6th floor of the Senate building in Pasay City is a huge portrait of Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr., sitting down and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III standing beside him — father and son from Mindanao who became Senate President: the father from 2000 to 2001 when a President was impeached, and the son in 2016 when the country elected the first President from Mindanao.

Koko stepped out of the shadow of his father in 1990 when the BS Math graduate from Ateneo de Manila University who took up Law at the University of the Philippines topped the bar examinations. His father was then on his first term as Senator.

Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel discusses the Bangsamoro Basic Law and Federalism in a sit-down interview with MindaNews in his office at the Senate on 28 February 2017. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Pimentel the son ran for the Senate in 2007, filed an electoral protest against Juan Miguel Zubiri of Bukidnon and was declared winner by the Senate Electoral Tribunal in August 2011 for a term that was set to expire on June 30, 2013.

He ran for the Senate in 2013 and won a second term that will end on June 30, 2019.

“My absence does not mean anything except that I am also busy,” the Senate President said, smiling as he took his seat at the conference table in his office while explaining why he was not at the formal launching of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) in Davao City on February 24.   

“I had my own schedule. I had my own commitments so if invitation comes late, I cannot accommodate,” he said.  Indeed, the invitation to the launch came late as the 21 members of the Commission that would draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) were named only on February 10.

Pimentel spared nearly an hour to answer MindaNews’ queries on the Bangsamoro and federalism in his office at the Senate on February 28.


Q. Basically the question that is frequently asked is that given that the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) is going to draft a new Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and at the same time there is this move to shift to a federal form of government, which should come first?
A. If we think about it objectively, it would be more difficult to have federal then have BBL because by the time that you are now pushing for BBL we are already in a federal set up. So it will be easier… relatively … compared to the other way around, it makes more sense to push for BBL first so an autonomous law for a certain area in the Philippines then for constitutional change towards federalism. So I think that is the two-track process envisioned by the peace panel but that also introduces some complications. The simplest would be straight to federalism.

Q. But will going straight to federalism also address basically the historical injustices against the Moro? Because the BBL is supposed to be based on the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).
A. That’s why some people have thought of federalism as the solution to the nation’s problems because federalism not only addresses the issue of equal decision-making process the powers, it also addresses the issue of preservation of cultural religious identity and then autonomy for you to solve subsidiarity, decentralization, for you to solve your own problems the nature of which you are supposed to know better than anyone else. Yun yung idea. That is also supposed to address the issue of the Bangsamoro

Q. Given the history of peace agreements and failures of implementation, it’s been 40 years since the signing of the Tripoli Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and then 20 years later, the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. We also have the 2012 and 2014 agreements with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Given also the situation now when you have a threat of the ISIS, how will the Senate deal with this situation, how will Congress deal with this situation in such a way that you serve the interest also of the Bangsamoro, you address the historical injustices and at the same time push for federalism. Di ba siya pwedeng mag-complement or mauna?
A. Tama ka. Complement. We will have to accommodate and cooperate with the executive branch. Ang plano nga ng executive branch, two-track. That’s more complicated than a single track na federalism. But we have to accommodate them so we will now await the product of the BTC, a new bill … and then present-day legislators benefit from all of these agreements that you mentioned, other reading materials, studies. When we now tackle the BBL or when we act as constituent assembly for constitutional change, we should benefit from all of those materials from all of those agreements and learn from them.

Q. The Bangsamoro Peace and Development Roadmap that President Duterte approved targets submission of the draft BBL to Congress by July. The President has already issued an EO on the Consultative Committee (ConCom) for the constitutional changes, but he has not named a member. So mauuna ba ang BBL or magkasabay sila sa Kongreso?
A. It’s a matter of fact na nauna na ang BTC kaysa sa ConCom so they should now start working and then double time. Anyway, one issue lang sila eh. Come up with that BBL so concentrate sila diyan but they have been given same deadline as the ConCom actually. Ang alam kong working deadline ng ConCom is July-August but since it has not been constituted, then I think they have to adjust the timetable… Let us not be surprised because the executive branch proposes the two track approach, if it will work. Basta kami, we will accommodate and we will cooperate. So bill into law is easier than Old Constitution to New Constitution…

Q. It’s not only two-track but three-track because the MNLF agreement with Nur Misuari has a separate track.
A. Pero … it’s still Bangsamoro track and then Federalism track. Dalawa lang .. ito lang (Bangsamoro) merong dalawang sidestreet… I think ganon rin, the same strategy — the product of the BTC, submit to congress, the product of the nego panel with Misuari, submit to congress — use the material, come up with a good law.

Q, Will Congress be the one to do the convergence? What do you propose? Should the convergence be done at the level of the Bangsamoro mismo?
A. Because if they (MNLF and MILF) were willing to cooperate, they should have cooperated earlier di ba? … It’s too much to expect na they’re not willing to cooperate and then when they have now their products, all of a sudden they cooperate… Sana that’s the ideal pero if the reality is they’re not willing to cooperate, then somebody has to do the harmonization or the reconciliation. It could it be the OP (Office of the President), walang masama doon or it could be Congress.

Q. But the other problem sa harmonization by Congress is, the MNLF proposal to amend RA 9054 is to strengthen the ARMM but BTC which is in accordance with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is to abolish ARMM,

Senate President Aquilino “Koko” PImentel III. MIndaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

A. Pero abolish and replace, it’s a matter of name yun.. The ARMM is the name that we have given to maybe the region as well as the government over that region. Regional government of the ARMM. Under the BBL, we abolish that but we still determine a region and we impose over it a government. So we are just changing the name but the idea is the same.

Q. How will the Bangsamoro fit into a Federal Republic of the Philippines
A. It will be treated as one regional state. One regional government.

Q. If there is an Ilocos state for instance, this will be the Bangsamoro state?
A. Correct.. and then.. because of this BBL, we have been introduced to the possibility of of asymmetrical relationships. Ibig sabihin non, let us say we divide the Philippines into 11 regions, regional governments or state governments, 10 could be treated in a standard manner. The 11th, the Bangsamoro, can have a different way of treating them …  the relationships are captured in the Constitution so asymmetric. But the people must accept – and the people must be told that this is possible in a federal – hindi yan one size fits all na one formula applies to all. Pwedeng, look at Spain, sa Spain di ba iba talaga? So for as long as the people consent and agree, what is wrong with that?

Q. Could it also be possible that … the law that would create the Bangsamoro for instance, be also the one that will be the Constitution of this Bangsamoro state?
A. Pwede and then basis din siya, the concessions, the grants of power. Whatever is found in the BBL can be the basis in drafting the provisions for that region which will be treated in a different manner. Pwedeng ganon so ma-elevate. The legal provisions can possibly be elevated into constitutional provisions.

Q. Is it also possible that the one they crafted and that one that Congress will have approved by then, di na uulitin pagpasok sa
A. Depende na yan sa final look of the Constitution. If the Constitution mandates the regions to enact your own Constitution, or better nga your own local government code, they can adopt that.

Q. Sir, ang daming proposals on federalism. What exactly, what kind of federal set-up are you proposing? How many regions will it be nationwide?
A. Eleven. In our latest model, 11.

Q. How many in Mindanao?
A. Mindanao would be three. Yung sa amin sa Northern Mindanao, which is all the way from the Zamboanga peninsula to all the way to Surigao, norhern. The rest would be the southern Davao, Cotabato provinces plus the Bangsamoro. So tatlo.

Q.  So ang area ng Bangsamoro will also be retained? Yung predominantly Moro?
A. Subject to minor changes. So yun yung basic idea. The core area of the Bangsamoro region should be those which are predominantly occupied now by Muslims, Filipino Muslims.

Q. Kaninong committee po i-aassign ang BBL pag na-submit na sa inyo?
A. If we are to follow the practice of last Congress, it would be Local Government but should there be a new insight kung saan pwede ilagay, we can still change it. Hindi naman final yan. But ang default non, it will be given to Local Government.

Q. One of the criticisms before was that since it was passed on to the Local Government committee, parang the tendency also was Senator Marcos thought of it as just an ordinary local government unit. That was one of the criticisms po against how the BBL was treated that way. That’s why hindi nga siya nakaabot ng final form di ba?
A. I don’t know what was his thinking but in fairness to him (Marcos), it reached the plenary and he tried to defend it pero we ran out of time..

Q. How do we, given the complexity of the problem, and four decades — masyado nang matagal, almost 50 years and how many administration have been trying to solve this, how many Senate presidents including your father — do you have a sense of like finally… coming up with a legislation that will really address these concerns given the four peace agreements in 40 years?
A, The BBL track. That would be it. So we build upon the four peace agreements over more or less the same area, we benefit from all of the studies, the papers written about the problem, plus the input now of the old BTC and the new BTC. Yan na…. We have now to enact a law…Ito na. Better na ito. The assumption is these are experts on the issue. So antayin natin ang product nila.

Q. I noticed in your speech on January 31 on the program of government for change, number one doon sa inyong binanggit was “dedicate ourselves to the all-out search for peace” bago pinasok yung federalism and then all out war sa drugs.
A. That’s correct

Q. So the priority of your Senate is really to ensure that we finally come up with solutions to the Bangsmaoro and the peace process with the National Democratic Front?
A. Yes.

Q. You are from Mindanao and only two Mindanawons became Senate President — you and your father. It was your father’s dream also to be able to address these historical injustices. Do you think, given the fact that the President is a Mindanawon, the Senate Presient is a Mindanawon and the House Speaker is also a Mindanawon, that this will come to a reality? This addressing the historical injustices?
A. If Mindanawons want this solved within their lifetime,  they should put more Mindanawons in these legislative bodies, especially here in the senate. We don’t even have a Muslim representation in the Senate. That’s why they will lose in a national election. In a federalism set up, the regions will be entitled to X number of seats in the upper house.

Q. So in terms of representation in the future Senate, mas assured sila..
A. Let’s work together in increasing that percentage by putting more people concerned about our part of the country. There will be some from Luzon and Visayas, they can be concerned about Mindanao issues but logic tells us that who is most likely concerned about Mindanao issues except people from Mindanao.

Q. Yung track ninyo, the plebiscite for federalism, is that going to be 2019 or
A. 2019. That’s the plan anyway.

Q. One of the basic fears expressed by some Moro leaders I have talked to is  baka pag nagsabay yung federalism  na track and BBL na track, baka somewhere along the way, maiwan yung BBL na track kasi magiging busy kayo doon sa federalism kasi that is your priority, right?
A. Good point nga yun eh.

Q. So how do you then assure the Bangsmoro that you will
A. Okay, basta once the executive branch is ready with the product of the BTC, the product of the ConCom, we will have to go over this two-track strategy very well, understand it and then implement it. It’s two tracks, we should not forget the other one. Merong mauuna eh. Kasi hindi naman pwedeng sabay, na as you change the Constitution, you pass a law because even the rules of the Constitution will change eh so merong mauuna dyan, So we have to agree. Basta the executive’s plan is two tracks but una si BBL. That is the plan.

Q. The President has also been saying this. He said that in his campaign and he said that again in several other speeches na uunahin yung BBL and make it a template for federalism.
A. Actually, pwede na pwede

Q. Can the BBL be really made the template?
A. Let’s not be too literal na the entire law but some ideas captured in the BBL can be template for federalism. Kunyari there’s a concept in the BBL applicable to non-Muslim region, why not, di ba?

Q. Like revenue-sharing
A. Revenue sharing pero yun na nga. Thats’ why we should be open to asymmetrical. Because maybe Central Federal Government cannot afford to replicate whatever revenue-sharing in the BBL with the other regional governments so kailangan open tayo, flexible tayo sa asymmetrical, na pwedeng iba-iba ang relationship, pwedeng sampu pare-pareho, isa iba. Dapat open tayo sa ganyan.

Q. Di ba yung asymmetrical pinu-push ng MILF?
A. Precisely. Becasue of the BBL debates last Congress, we were introduced to this concept of asymmetrical relationship which we will now borrow and get even in the Constitutional Change debates. We have to introduce this concept na do not think that our Constitution should have standard formula for all. A federal Constitution may have asymmetrical relationships so open tayo doon. Dapat. Dapat.  Otherwise, without that flexibility, mahirapan tayo.

Q. Sa tingin nyo ba, is the Philippines ready for a shift to federal?
A. We should not debate on that. We should prepare precisely the Philippines kaya nga the burden on the political party to educate the people, the burden of advocates to educate the people. Ang problema, meron din namang ibang nagka-counter, may iba nagmi-misinform.

Q. The President, although he’s consistent in pushing for federalism, after eight months has not given the nation a model of what the federal government would be.
A. Okay lang yun kasi doon sya sa concept eh. That’s why he’s forming a ConCom. Ayusin ang Constitution. Ang point is, what is the essence of federalism? You are recognizing not only one level of power, possibly two, possibly more, more or less two-level of power where the identification of the powers of each level of government is constitutionally protected. That’s the essence of federalism. Wala kang ibang… there’s no other definition of federalism because if you look up all the federal countries around the world, iba-iba rin naman eh. But that is commonality, that the Constitution protects the sharing or the identification of powers.

Q. The Duterte administration is already entering it’s 9th month and parang hindi pa masyadong na capture ang imagination ng nation by this push for federalism. The President also in his speeches would repeatedly say that nothing short of federalism will solve the problem in Mindanao so parang ang effect on the other islands – Luzon and Visayas – is parang federalism is just for Mindanao
A. Federalism is a not only for the Mindanao situation but is also for the Mindanao situation. Yun lang yun. It solves from the advocate’s point of views… it solves a lot of problem samantalang doon sa anti, it does not solve any problem. That is now the clash. Burden nga ito ng supporters of the President to educate the people, tell them what are the possible models, kasi wala pa nga, but the party should have one model which will tell the people,  the ConCom can have another model. Compromise na lang po tayo. What is important is that there will be more than one level of power, more than one center of power and the sharing of powers is constitutionality protected. That is the bottomline of the party.

[Peace Talk is a series of conversations on the Bangsamoro Peace Process with leaders from civil society, government and revolutionary fronts. Interviews with residents in conflict-affected areas in the Bangsamoro are in multimedia format]