The work of the Transition Commission for the Bangsamoro region got under way the other day; it is no exaggeration to say that the undertaking is burdened with the high expectations of millions of Filipinos.
By the terms of the 2012 Framework Agreement, signed with much fanfare and even more emotion in Malacañang last October, the TransCom has three responsibilities: to draft a Bangsamoro Basic Law, to propose constitutional amendments if necessary, to coordinate development programs as needed.
The first function is the crucial one; without it, there is no transition.
Some critics have wondered why President Aquino issued the executive order constituting the 15-person commission even before the negotiations on the remaining annexes of the Framework Agreement had concluded. Shouldn’t the government wait until what will likely be known as a comprehensive peace compact—the FA plus the four annexes, on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalization and transitional arrangements—takes final form? As it is, the peace panels of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are still negotiating.
There is much to be said for this single-track approach to a comprehensive peace in Mindanao. But both the government and the MILF have agreed to work on parallel tracks. The peace talks will continue in Kuala Lumpur, with a new self-imposed deadline: concluding negotiations on all remaining annexes before May 13, Election Day. At the same time, the TransCom, consisting of seven members representing the government and eight representing the MILF (including the chair, Mohagher Iqbal, the rebel group’s chief negotiator), has begun its work.
It may be useful to think of the transition contemplated by the Framework Agreement as consisting of three distinct phases. In the first phase, the overriding task is to pass a Basic Law—drafted by the TransCom, certified urgent by the President, deliberated and debated on and ultimately passed by Congress. According to the most optimistic estimates of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the earliest we can expect Congress to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law is toward the end of the first session of the (still-to-be-elected) 16th Congress.
In the second phase, the main task is to ratify the Basic Law, “through a process of popular ratification among all the Bangsamoro within the areas for their adoption” (in the language of the Framework Agreement). The third phase begins with ratification, when the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is dissolved and the Bangsamoro region, under a Bangsamoro Transitional Authority, is created. The transition ends when the region elects its first leaders—in the 2016 elections.
As best as we can understand it, then, the urgency of the parallel-track approach is explained by the determination of both the government and the MILF to work according to the electoral calendar. Signing the peace compact before May 13 will have political benefits for the administration and its candidates, of course; only the naive would deny that. But making the final peace agreement an election issue is also another step toward greater accountability; only the cynical would balk.
Given that the passage of the Basic Law, its ratification, the creation of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority and the preparations for the first regional elections under the Basic Law will all take place in the three years of the 16th Congress, it makes sense to make peace with the MILF a major election issue.
And if the goal is to pass the Basic Law toward the end of the first session, say by the first quarter of 2014, then it also makes sense to try to get as much of a head start as possible. When the 16th Congress convenes for the first time in July later this year, the TransCom would have been at work for over three months. That can only be a good thing.
The crisis in Sabah, precipitated precisely to derail the timetable outlined in the Framework Agreement, should not be allowed to disrupt the process. Indeed, the process itself is the best argument against the claims of the likes of Nur Misuari: It may have its shortcomings, but it is inclusive, participative, ultimately democratic. It marks a change in how the Muslim Filipino is seen and treated, from “the other” to “equal partner.” Much hard work lies ahead, but a process cocreated by equal partners looks sturdy enough to carry the weight of our expectations.