Will federalism hold the Bangsamoro hostage?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/07 March) — In his inaugural speech on 30 June 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte declared that [his] administration “is committed to implement all signed peace agreements “in step with constitutional and legal reforms.” Apparently, the phrase “constitutional and legal reforms” refers to his agenda to shift from a unitary to a federal form of government.

While the idea of federalism seems to fit into the demand of the Moro people in Mindanao for self-determination, fears are rife that it may defeat such aspiration which is to be embodied in the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), granting Congress allows its passage. This was among the concerns that emerged during the March 4-5 meeting in Davao City of the Internal Mediators, a discussion group on the Bangsamoro with members from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, lawyers, academicians and other Muslim intellectuals.

In his presentation, lawyer Jose Lorena said “the federalization of the country should first transform the regions from lagged to more advanced and progressive regions even as we start to break and federalize the country beginning with financially and economically capable regions.”

“The approach to federalization should be tiered and by phases,” Lorena, a member of the government panel in the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the body tasked to draft the BBL said.

He added the government proposal is to initially form four federal states — Mindanao, the Visayas, Luzon and Metro Manila.

But this setup, the participants pointed out, will reduce the Bangsamoro into being an “enclave” of the Mindanao state.

As per the government timeframe for the BBL, the president will submit the bill to Congress in July 2017, Congress is expected to pass it in December, and a plebiscite for its ratification will take place in May 2018. Once ratified, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority will be organized.

For federalism, a Constitutional Commission, along with a Constituent Assembly (the two Houses of Congress convened as one body) will start drafting the new charter in 2018 and submit it for ratification in mid-2019. It remains uncertain however if the Senate will agree to a Constituent Assembly. If it won’t, the only other option is to elect members of a Constitutional Convention.

After ratification of the new constitution, the period 2019-2022 will mark the transition to the new form of government, including elections of a new set of officials. Beginning in 2022 and until 2027, there will be reconfiguration into smaller federal states, including one for the Bangsamoro, Lorena said.

But lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, a former executive secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, noted that “there is no platform allowing us to participate in the federalism discourse.”

[For the national government] the basis of federalism is financial and economic viability which is an issue to the Bangsamoro, Sinarimbo said.

He stressed that the issue of the Moro people is the right to self-determination, including the right to natural resources which is hampered by the Regalian Doctrine.

He warned that if, by 2019, “we are still haggling for the enabling law, the process and substance of the agreement will have to change. We will be forced to follow the federal constitution if we fail to negotiate or negotiate under the terms of the agreement. The minimum goal under federalism should be to negotiate to preserve the gains of the peace process.”

“Create a platform where these issues can be taken up, as we don’t expect the armed groups to follow the president and just go along with federalism,” he said.

Sinarimbo proposed holding a Moro Congress as the platform where the Bangsamoro can define its own federalism framework which is not reflected in the national federalism framework.

The last Moro Congress happened in 1971, on the eve of the war of secession waged by the then undivided MNLF led by founding chair Nur Misuari.

“Submit tangible proposals to Congress that will lead to a state constitution for the Bangsamoro,” Sinarimbo said.

He added that in negotiating for a Bangsamoro federal state, issues that were sidelined due to the junking of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain can be revived, for example, the treatment of Davao Oriental and Moro Gulf. “Other groups will not bring these issues to the national debate.”

Kagan Muslims live in parts of Davao Oriental as well as in Davao City and other areas of the region.

A participant agreed with Sinarimbo that since the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is anchored on the 1987 Constitution, the BBL will become irrelevant once a new charter is ratified under federalism. [The new constitution] “will diminish, if not obliterate, the powers of the Bangsamoro,” he said.

He said the assumption is that the BBL will be lesser than a federal state, and the Bangsamoro will have no power to amend the enabling law. The solution, he added, is to put provisions in the federal constitution allowing the Bangsamoro parliament to come up with its own system, even one that is dismissive of the BBL.

Apprehensions that people who are not well-versed about the Mindanao problem might be elected to the Constitutional Convention emerged, too.

Lawyer Bong Parcasio of the MNLF-Misuari group said that aside from being overtaken by events related to federalism, the Bangsamoro agenda could suffer a setback if the popularity of President Duterte wanes.

He agreed to the holding of a Moro Congress. He said Muslims need not wait for government if they want self-determination. “Reassert precolonial sovereignty to rectify historical injustice as envisioned in the Jeddah Accord… Establish a Minsupala (Mindanao-Sulu-Palawan) federal state and not just settle for the Moro-dominated provinces.”

Signed on 3 January 1987, the Jeddah Accord between government and the MNLF created a joint commission tasked to draft the mechanisms of the proposal to grant full autonomy to Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan “subject to democratic processes.” It was overtaken however by the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, although the charter contains provisions on regional autonomy that serve as the bases for the creation of what is now known as ARMM.

“Sababihin nila, hanggang Moro-dominated provinces lang kayo, yan ang hawla ninyo. Gawin nating gintong hawla, pero hawla pa rin (They would say, remain in Moro-dominated provinces, that’s your cage. We will make it a golden cage, but it’s still a cage),” Parcasio said.

Lawyer Ishak Mastura said that former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr.’s proposal that the Bangsamoro state will only cover the ARMM does not address the issue of territory.

But he also disliked the idea of pushing for a Minsupala state as it “dilutes our assertion.” He cited, for instance, that the Bangsamoro is a minority in Palawan.

For lawyer Omar Sema, the current framing of the BBL does not preserve the “incremental gains” of the peace process. He cited, for instance, that the provision on territory seems to support the possible disintegration of the core territory.”

Guiamel Alim said time also poses a challenge to the peace process. He noted that it took the current government eight months to reconstitute the BTC, and it has yet to act on the recommendations of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). In contrast, he said, the federalism agenda is moving fast.

The TJRC was created by the government and the MILF under the Annex on Normalization to the peace agreement. Its mandate is to make recommendation on how to address historical injustices, legitimate grievances (of the Bangsamoro), human rights violations and marginalization through land dispossession, with the view to promote healing and reconciliation.

Alim expressed apprehensions that if the Moro fronts fail to converge and push the Bangsamoro agenda together, the government might use it against them.

If the president can stop the peace process with the National Democratic Front,, there is a possibility that he will stop the Bangsamoro peace process given “the tendency of fascism at the moment,” he said. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)