Peace panel on BBL: Down but not out

Jose Rodel Clapano - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – While Congress’ failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) may have set back peace efforts, the government is determined to pursue lasting peace in Mindanao, with peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer declaring, “We are down, but we are not out.”

Ferrer told radio station dzBB they are “in the period of acceptance” after BBL’s demise in Congress, but are confident of seeing the next administration continue talking peace with Muslim rebels, particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

She said they also expect the next Congress to decide favorably on the BBL.

“What we need is more patience,” Ferrer said, as she acknowledged that Congress has been deluged with other pending measures.

“Let me state the fact: the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, in whatever shape or form, did not make it out of the 16th Congress,” she said.

But she stressed that the “roadmap” laid out in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) “remains viable even as we shall now be crafting adjustments in the timeline.”

She bewailed what she called “sheer indifference and chronic absenteeism” of most of the legislators as manifested in the lack of a quorum almost every day in the House of Representatives.

Ferrer also assailed the “prolonged and repetitive” interpellation by BBL detractors in Congress.

In the Senate, she said the frequent absence of the bill sponsor and the remaining interpellator stalled the deliberation on the BBL.

“Moreover, a belated change in procedure was entertained. Only last December, the Senate practically conceded that the Bangsamoro bill is of local application and therefore the upper chamber should have just waited for the House version to be remanded to it,” Ferrer said.

Waste of taxpayers’ money

She said the 40 public hearings and 14 plenary deliberations conducted by the House ad hoc committee chaired by Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, and the 15 public hearings and 14 sessions of plenary interpellations led by local governments committee chair Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. “amounted to nothing,” with millions of pesos in taxpayers’ money going to waste.

“It is only to be expected that the Filipino people, especially those in the Bangsamoro who had pinned high hopes on this new law, are grieving, hurting and once again, dreading what tomorrow may bring,” Ferrer said.

But she made clear the “collective inaction” of legislators on the BBL “will not stop the momentum” of the peace process.

“At this low point, we call for sobriety and perseverance. The work many among us started and accomplished together through 17 years of hard negotiations and vigorous efforts to jumpstart and move the implementation of the road map cannot be taken away,” she pointed out.

Ferrer emphasized the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) “still binds the government and the MILF to their respective obligations” of working for peace and reforms.

Ferrer reiterated that CAB takes into consideration the diverse interests of different stakeholders in the so-called Bangsamoro region, and provides the guideposts to institute meaningful autonomy and promote social justice through equitable distribution of wealth and political power in Muslim Mindanao.

She said it was the same obligations that the 1987 Constitution has mandated Congress to do.

“The agreement also provides for a gradual and phased process of decommissioning of MILF weapons and combatants,” Ferrer said.

“It addresses the threat posed by other armed groups and creates the spaces for the convergence of other Bangsamoro claimants such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the new autonomous government envisioned,” she said, referring to CAB.

The peace panel chair also said CAB includes transitional justice and reconciliation measures designed to “address historical injustices and heal the wounds of war, and remove the biases and prejudices that have created the huge gap in understanding and affection” between the Filipino majority and the minority.

“It took a long time to get to this set of practical steps. We need to take away the fear and distrust of the Bangsamoro for our country to become whole,” Ferrer maintained.

“We therefore urge our politicians and fellow citizens to take the time to study the history of the conflict and the peace process so as to get a better understanding of the road map and our unflinching efforts to see it through,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer said that as members of the government negotiating panel, “we will do everything in the remaining time we have to ensure that the infrastructure for implementing the peace accord are fully functional so that the next administration will be in a good position to carry forward the full implementation of the agreement.”

Still, partner for peace

Even if the BBL was unable to hurdle Congress, the government still considers the MILF a reliable partner for peace in Mindanao.

“We note the assurance given by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal on continuing to work with the government in promoting the peace process even beyond the present administration,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said yesterday.

Since the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) in October 2012, Coloma said the MILF has demonstrated its capacity for keeping the peace in Mindanao.

“Government will persevere in its efforts to implement the CAB, which serves as a roadmap for resolving internal armed conflict in Mindanao,” he said.

The MILF, in an editorial posted on its official website, has blamed hardline lawmakers for the fate of the BBL and acknowledged the Mamasapano incident has prompted many lawmakers to take a critical stand on the issue.

It also acknowledged President Aquino’s vigorous effort to work for the measure’s approval in Congress and his blaming lawmakers for the unfavorable outcome of their deliberation on the BBL.

The rebel group did not give a hint of what it intends to do next, but a spokesman has repeatedly raised fears of disillusionment among young fighters who may be lured into joining radical groups like the Islamic State.

But Iqbal was also quoted as saying Congress’ failure to pass the BBL was not the end of the world for them and that the quest for peace in Mindanao would continue. 

Mamasapano to blame

Disputing Ferrer’s claim that lawmakers’ inaction was to blame for BBL’s fate, Senate President Franklin Drilon said the measure would have easily seen the light had it not been for the Mamasapano incident.

“Unfortunately, that incident intervened and at a certain point Senator Enrile availed of the period of interpellation and Senator Marcos could not be at the floor every day, so there was a delay,” Drilon said, referring to Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Marcos, the principal author of the measure at the Senate.

“I would suggest to professor Ferrer that you know, she should pursue the peace process. As I said, there is an existing Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and we should pursue this. The BBL is just one of the items in this comprehensive agreement,” Drilon said.           

He also called Ferrer “misinformed” for criticizing the Senate’s move to wait for the House.

“Now I can show to her our legislative history which would indicate that as a matter of practice and as a matter of the interpretation of the Constitution, laws pertaining to the ARMM are always considered as bills of local application,” Drilon said.

Such laws, he explained, are “tackled by the House first and referred to the Senate after they pass it and that is when we pass our own version.”

Drilon said that it would be up to the next administration to decide if it wants to pursue the BBL again.

“But it is foolhardy for the next administration not to pursue the peace process, and that includes honoring the peace agreement. They may tweak it in some areas, but in general the peace process should be pursued. I would recommend that to the next president,” Drilon said.

“I have confidence in the maturity of our Muslim brothers that this is democracy, we have to go through a process, and maybe this failure to pass the BBL this time would provide us and allow us more maturity to reexamine everything,” he added.

Enrile, for his part, said the BBL would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in the country and would not bring peace to Mindanao.

“They mangled the Constitution and it will not bring peace in Mindanao. It will explode a bigger problem,” he said.

He added giving the proposed Bangsamoro immense power would be dangerous, especially to non-Muslims.

“The government is already afraid of them now, what more if they already have that. Many non-Muslims in Mindanao will be affected. There will be civil war there,” Enrile said.

Negotiators’ fault

For Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat, the BBL’s death in the current Congress was the fault of peace negotiators and not the President.

“He met with us two or three times, and during the last days of session, he even called or sent text messages to House members to ask them to attend the session,” he said.

However, he said the draft BBL was “really a hard sell” that lawmakers could not accept.

“And I am blaming the peace panel for this, because they agreed to so many things that they should not have accepted in the first place, including the creation of a state within a state,” he added.

Lobregat accused government peace negotiators of violating Aquino’s directives in their talks with the MILF.

He said the President’s instructions were for the panel to be “mindful of the Constitution, that it should learn from the lessons of the past like the junking of previous agreements, that it should not promise what the government cannot deliver, and that it should be transparent and consultative.”

“Most of the BBL provisions they agreed to violate the Constitution and existing laws and are against the national interest,” he said.

He said the Mamasapano incident served as an “eye opener” for lawmakers to scrutinize the proposed law that seeks to create an autonomous region which, in its first few years, would be dominated by the MILF.

“This incident turned the tide against the proposed BBL,” he stressed.

ARMM good enough

Lobregat also said there is nothing wrong with the present law that created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

“I disagree with the claim of the government peace panel that ARMM is a failed experience. The failure lies in the people who ran it, not in the law. Look at the record of the present ARMM leadership. Gov. Mujiv Hataman has accomplished so much in so short a time,” he said.

But Rep. Lito Atienza of party-list group Buhay said Aquino did not push his congressional allies enough to pass the BBL bill.

 “I know the ways in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives. If the President pushes hard enough, he gets what he wants. In the case of the BBL, political will was obviously lacking,” he told the Usaping Balita forum at the Serye restaurant in Quezon City.

In the past, he said Aquino got his allies to approve equally controversial measures like the Reproductive Health Bill and the measure that increased excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol products.

Both Atienza and Lobregat said they hope the MILF would remain calm and interested in peace even without the BBL.

They said if the BBL bill is re-introduced in the next Congress, they would continue to scrutinize it should they get reelected.   

Meanwhile, Marcos said continuing the peace process even without the BBL is the country’s best defense against extremist groups like ISIS.

“It’s not a question of blaming, pointing of fingers one way or the other, we really tried to finish it, but we just couldn’t do it,” he said.

Marcos also lauded Iqbal for reaffirming his commitment to peace.

“While he admitted that he has no idea how the MILF will proceed from the agreement’s non-passage, he expressed hope that a solution will be reached to remedy the situation, including going back to the negotiating table to review the agreement,” he said. Aurea Calica, Jess Diaz, Marvin Sy, Perseus Echeminada, Roel Pareño

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