There’s the Rub

Heaven help us

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The glowing praises are richly deserved. After a protracted internecine war, one that has brought untold suffering on Muslim Mindanao, there’s real hope the war may finally end.

Over the weekend, Aquino announced an agreement to forge a Bangsamoro state. “The ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) is a failed experiment,” he said. “Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system, and those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun…. This agreement creates a new political entity, it deserves a name that symbolizes and honors the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao. That name will be Bangsamoro.”

But Aquino also added a word of caution: The agreement is “still a work in progress, there are still details that both sides must hammer out.”

That word of caution has to be taken very seriously.

In fact, all that has been done, however it advances peace to epic lengths, is to create a roadmap to something. Of course that’s better than having a roadmap to nothing, or having no roadmap at all, as the peace talks have been over the past decades. But the road isn’t just rough and rocky, it has yet to be built.

The word “agreement” is a little misleading in that respect. What the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have arrived at is not an agreement in the sense of something that has been signed. It is just an “agreement to agree,” if we may call it that. Or it is just an agreement in principle to create a Bangsamoro (sub)state. Truly, there are “details that both sides must [still] hammer out,” but as every lawyer and writer knows, the devil is in the details.

The notion that the agreement will be signed within the year is silly, and only raises wrong expectations. The MILF itself does not expect to sign it until after a few years. And the government cannot just sign it offhand, it has to go through a process.
To begin with, the group that will thresh out the details on the Bangsamoro homeland is the 15-member Transition Commission. Several legislators have questioned the constitutionality of a commission that was made by the executive branch rather than the legislature, by fiat rather than by law. That is one detail that by itself poses no small amount of problems.

Just as well, its work will have to pass through Congress. As it is, there’s brewing debate on whether the Bangsamoro concept entails constitutional amendment or not, with Miriam Santiago saying it does since the Bangsamoro government will be ministerial, and Marvic Leonen saying it doesn’t since the Constitution allows for an autonomous formation determining its own system of government. That looks like one long debate.

But whether it does or not, whatever the Transition Commission decides must pass through Congress. In the past, of course, Aquino has managed to rally the legislators behind his agenda. The question is, will he continue to do so on this? Far more trickily, will he get it past the justices of the Supreme Court, many of whom are still pissed off with him for appointing Lourdes Sereno chief justice? The last time a Bangsamoro homeland was put to it—by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—it shot it down.

And finally it may have to go through a plebiscite in the areas Bangsamoro covers. Where it is bound to be opposed by the local leaders—the Lobregats have already complained that the Bangsamoro agreement caught them by surprise, they were never consulted—who do not mind being under the ARMM but who will certainly greatly mind being under the MILF. Erap misses the point: The danger does not lie in the formation of a splinter group that will continue to oppose the government, it lies in the internal conflict Bangsamoro will stoke within its ranks.

Having said all this, I laud the “agreement to agree” wholeheartedly. It is a giant step for Filipinos, and I’m optimistic it will push its way to realization. Good ideas have a way of smashing obstacles in their path. I base my bullishness on a couple of things.

One is that truly, what a difference a new administration makes. It wasn’t just the Supreme Court that struck down the attempt to create a Bangsamoro state the last time around, it was the public, too. What made it exceptionally unpopular then was not just that the public saw it as realizing the MILF’s secessionist dreams but that it saw it as Arroyo’s payment for Muslim Mindanao’s help in putting her in power and quite possibly keeping her there. Aquino’s administration does not labor from such levels of distrust. On the contrary, it enjoys the opposite. That explains the night-and-day difference in public response to Arroyo’s Bangsamoro and Aquino’s own. The first was reviled, the second is embraced.

Two is the carrot the approval of the agreement offers and the stick its rejection by Congress or the Supreme Court poses. It is exceedingly popular, offering as it does the possibility of lasting peace, which exerts tremendous pressure on the legislators and the justices not to mess with it, or mess it up.

From the other end, the consequences of its rejection by the legislature or judiciary or both are nightmarish. The last time that happened, the MILF, out of a profound sense of betrayal, rightly or wrongly, went ballistic, some of its uncontrollable elements going on a rampage in Cotabato and elsewhere. They have gone back to the negotiating table in good faith, agreeing to give up secessionism in favor of a Bangsamoro (sub)state on mutually defined terms. For the agreement, however it is only in principle—but which translates as “You gave us your word”—to be scrapped a second time, hell will have no fury than the doubly scorned.

Heaven help us make the right decision.

Or heaven help us.

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