‘Good to start’
That overused term preferred by diplomats is appropriate here: The congressional bicameral conference committee version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, hammered into shape at the end of six contentious days (and four years after the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed), must be met with cautious optimism.
It was good to see the current chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission Ghazali Jaafar, first vice chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the former BTC chair Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF’s peace implementing panel, present at the bicam deliberations from beginning until symbolic end. Their words of support for the final version are important.
Jaafar, for instance, told Mindanews that the change in name of the autonomous territory from Bangsamoro to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (or BARMM) did not pose a problem. The change was “very slight,” he said. Besides, the word autonomy is still there in the new name (“andyan ang autonomy,” he said).
He also quoted the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s saying about cats, that it didn’t matter if they were black or white, as long as they caught mice. “I believe in that,” he said. Later, after all the issues were resolved and the bicameral committee reached agreement, he told lawmakers: “We are satisfied. It is not a perfect law, but it is good to start with. It is very important to us.”
But even more important than his words, or those of Iqbal, was the photo taken of House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri presenting both Jaafar and Iqbal with a copy of the proposed new law; the image created is truly consequential.
It is also necessary, because while the reconciled draft represents a significant advance on the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, key elements of the version prepared by the BTC were not carried into the final draft.
In the first place, the draft law no longer refers to itself as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, with its implications of a founding, even a constitutional, measure. Instead, it will be called the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (and will likely be referred to in news reports as the Bangsamoro Organic Law). The catchphrases “asymmetrical political relationship” (a conceptual breakthrough that helped the government and the MILF reach a peace agreement) and “parity of esteem” are no longer in the draft. Even more to the point, the very phrase asserting the “right to self-determination,” present in the House version but not in the Senate bill, is nowhere to be found.
But the proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law does build on the framework and experience of the ARMM. As Jaafar said two days before the bicam committee reached agreement, “it’s not below the ARMM.”
That is true. In terms of its political system, the Bangsamoro is a definite improvement over the ARMM: It will have its own government, headed by a chief minister and a ceremonial leader called a Wali. It will have an 80-seat parliament, with eight seats reserved for sectoral representatives.
In economic terms, the region will enjoy a higher wealth-sharing ratio: 75 percent of the internal revenue collected will go to the new government, instead of 70 percent. And an annual block grant, equivalent to 5 percent of national internal revenue collection, will be automatically appropriated to the new region. (In cash terms, this is more than double what the entire national judiciary receives as automatic appropriation).
And the Bangsamoro will have its own justice system based on Sharia law, open to traditional or tribal laws when disputes involve indigenous peoples within the region, but all compatible with the Philippine Constitution.
It will not have its own armed forces or police force, however. It will have to seek recourse to a new referendum to confirm that six towns in Lanao del Norte and 39 barangays of North Cotabato can join the new autonomous region. And it will have to deal with the fraught absence of the potent principle of self-determination.
There is reason for optimism then, but the response on the ground and the country’s own history will determine whether Filipinos in the Bangsamoro, and in the rest of the country, are right to welcome the good news with abundant caution.
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