Thoughts on the peace process

It is interesting to note that some of our legislators are raising fundamental questions about the Bangsamoro Basic Law only now. They ask, for instance: By what right is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front speaking for the people of Muslim Mindanao? Why is the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous government ministerial in form? What is meant for this Bangsamoro government to have an “asymmetrical” relationship with the Philippine government? Why is Malaysia allowed to play a role in the peace negotiations, etc.?

Basic as they are, these questions project the false impression that the bill is being sprung on Congress, permitting little time for a thoughtful consideration of its terms, provisions and implications. In truth, the key issues have been debated for at least 17 years now, acquiring the hysteria with which they are today invested only after the unfortunate Mamasapano incident in January.

The answers were all first clearly laid out in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed on Oct. 15, 2012, whose constitutionality critics could have challenged at the Supreme Court. It will be recalled that the high court stopped the Arroyo-era Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in its tracks before it could even be signed. Indeed, there was another chance to run to the high court after the signing on March 27, 2014, of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which incorporated all the annexes fleshing out in detail the spirit of the peace agreement with the MILF. Unchallenged and witnessed by the international community, these documents carry the binding force of an executive agreement.

But, perhaps it is just as well that the BBL is attracting thorough scrutiny, late as it comes. The eminent Maguindanao lawyer and Islamic scholar, Michael Mastura, noted in a recent commentary submitted to the Senate: “So far it is not useful to set a deadline for the passage of the BBL when substantive debates have not been exhausted.” I agree: This is how political will formation in a democracy is supposed to happen. The more we understand the philosophy and intent of the proposed law, the greater are its chances of being supported by an informed public. Still, we should not allow one tragic incident to completely define our attitude toward a piece of vital legislation that is being offered as a solution to one of the most persistent problems of our nation since independence.

Even as we debate, we should take stock of what we have achieved. Under the umbrella of a ceasefire agreement that has given Mindanao a long respite from war, people representing the government and the MILF worked quietly to craft an elaborate roadmap to lasting peace. They have built and nurtured trust on both sides, leading us step by step to where we are today. We should not throw all this away by unnecessarily inciting patriotic passions to depict what is being done here as a treasonous conspiracy to dismember the republic.

Why are we dealing with the MILF? The peace talks with the MILF logically build upon the ceasefire agreement that was forged in 1997. The ceasefire has generally held up over the years in those areas under MILF influence, testifying to the latter’s reliability as a partner in the peace effort and as an authentic voice of the Moro people. That it is the MILF that negotiated the agreement creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region does not mean it will automatically control the latter’s government. The MILF has set up its own political party to compete with other parties in the elections for the autonomous government.

Why is the proposed autonomous government proposing a structure that is different from that of the local government units in the rest of the country? The proposed Bangsamoro entity is not like an ordinary LGU. Rather, it seeks to meaningfully implement the provision on autonomous regions found in Article X of the 1987 Constitution. The relationship between the national government and the autonomous regional government is nevertheless “asymmetrical,” meaning, there are powers reserved to the autonomous region, but the latter remains an integral part of the republic. The ministerial form is a choice proposed by the MILF panel to promote a strong party system; it simply means the people will elect their representatives to the assembly through their parties, and the assembly will then elect the chief minister to serve as its leader.

What is Malaysia doing, playing a role in what is supposed to be an internal affair of the Filipino people? In 2001, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president, our government requested the Malaysian government to serve as a facilitator of the talks with the MILF. To its credit, Malaysia has performed this role with great sensitivity, fairness and goodwill, with no reference whatsoever to the Philippine claim to Sabah.

It is almost incredible that we have reached this stage of the peace process at all, considering how the Arroyo administration promptly disowned the efforts of its own panel after the MOA-AD was declared unconstitutional in a split vote of the Supreme Court on Oct. 14, 2008. Today, we not only have a comprehensive peace agreement, we also have the draft of an original law.

Yet, the process is far from finished. If the law is passed, it will have to be ratified in a plebiscite in the core areas of autonomy. If the law is rejected, we go back to the drawing board. If it prevails, then the complex experiment of forming a credible and functional regional government tailor-made for Muslim Mindanao begins—under the watchful eye of, hopefully, a supportive Filipino nation.

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