BBL or bust
A few years ago, an Ilonggo settler working for a peacebuilding program in Central Mindanao shared with me an analogy of the Bangsamoro situation.
He likened the plight of the Bangsamoro to someone who once owned a spacious house with many rooms. One day, a friend from another island asked if he could stay in one of the rooms. The owner welcomed him, and even asked him to choose from any of the rooms available.
The following year, the friend came back, this time with yet another friend who brought some relatives along. Again, they asked if they could stay in the house and, again, the owner agreed. Year after year, the friend returned with relatives of the friends and friends of relatives, and every year the house owner welcomed them, until there came a time when they would simply arrive and take room, no longer asking for permission.
Soon, there was only one room left. This was where the house owner and his family stayed.
And yet people kept coming, and eventually demanded that the owner give up his own room for them! The owner refused, and even fought to reclaim the rooms he once owned to begin with.
Bad blood flowed between the erstwhile friends. After years of conflict, the house owner sought peace and asked that he at least be allowed to have his own room together with his family, and live as they saw fit. He no longer sought to reclaim the other rooms, despite never giving these away to begin with.
But the settlers, together with their ilk, deemed that they should be the ones to decide how the owner should manage the only room he has left.
The house is Mindanao. The Bangsamoro people, together with their kindred indigenous peoples (IP), are the house owners. And the settlers are those from faraway lands who continue to profit from exploiting, extracting if not pillaging the resources in Mindanao. Their cohorts include national governments and politicians, especially those who are not from Mindanao but want to decide the fate of those in the island, especially in the region where the Bangsamoro and the IPs remain.
The fate of this region—the proverbial room of the house owner—now rests on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law that has been agreed upon by Congress’ bicameral committee. The house owner, through the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has agreed with the settlers and their cohorts to participate in the crafting of the draft.
Guided by the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), a Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) composed of “representatives” of the owner and settler was tasked to draft the BBL. However, the house owner’s fate lay not entirely in his hands, as the proposed BBL was subjected to amendments by Congress.
The analogy might not be entirely accurate, given other factors, but it does encapsulate the Bangsamoro narrative of being “politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized in their own homeland.”
Decades of historical injustice, land dispossession and human rights violations committed against them by various administrations, including that of the American colonizers, may indeed be addressed by an inclusive BBL. But diluting the spirit and letter of the proposed law can only mean further injustice, alienation and conflict.
Prior to the bicam, the BTC draft of the BBL had been heavily pared down by the House and Senate. Observers note that the BBL version now agreed upon by the bicameral committee has substantially reduced the powers of the proposed Bangsamoro government envisioned in the BTC’s draft BBL. They allege that a substantial number of the exclusive powers in the CAB and embedded in the BTC-drafted bill have been reverted back to the national government, along with proposed concurrent powers. This does not include those that were either deleted or reduced.
According to the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), the amendment regarding “exclusive powers” is a point of concern. It subjects the exclusive powers of the Bangsamoro government to not only the Constitution, but also to other national laws. This undermines further the Bangsamoro’s assertion as a self-governing entity and effectively throws away the essence of meaningful autonomy.
In a 2016 meeting with then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, Moro civil society and peace advocates collectively known as the “All-Out Peace” network sought his support for an inclusive BBL, with the Bangsamoro pitched as a “pilot” or template for his federalism project. He agreed, saying that his only concern was ensuring that the security forces’ chain of command clearly remains with the national government. The network assured him this will be ensured in the BBL.
The CBCS lucidly points out that an inclusive BBL guarantees that “safeguards are built in, providing balance between ensuring, on one hand, that social justice is afforded the Bangsamoro, and on the other hand, respecting the sovereign power of the state.”
As president, Mr. Duterte promised to address the historical injustice experienced by the Bangsamoro. This was met with the warmest of welcomes from the Bangsamoro and all peace-loving Filipinos.
An inclusive BBL can fulfill that promise, and it is indeed the right step toward addressing the roots of violent conflict in Mindanao.
The BBL recognizes the struggle for self-determination through meaningful autonomy, and the Bangsamoro becomes more of an opportunity for national development rather than an obstacle. This can lead to the healing that is necessary for unity and reconciliation between the house owner, and the settlers and their cohorts.
This is the second attempt to pass the BBL. The Aquino administration came close to passing the law, but ultimately failed after the infamous Mamasapano incident transpired.
This administration is avowedly “friendlier” to the Bangsamoro, alongside the Marawi siege and ongoing air strikes at alleged camps of local terror groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Islamic State-inspired elements. These are contradictions that need to be unraveled.
Thus, a BBL that is essentially compliant to the CAB as expressed in the BTC draft can provide meaningful autonomy for the Bangsamoro. The law should aim to enhance the power of the house owner so he can improve the lives of his family, while ending the violent conflict and fostering unity and reconciliation.
The draft BBL approved by the bicameral committee and set to be submitted to President Duterte reportedly before his State of the Nation Address on Monday now holds the lever of history.
If it wants to render genuine justice, it must allow the house owner and his people to decide over their affairs with minimal intervention.
As the CBCS said in a past statement, this is an opportunity for the national government to show that it can address violent conflicts through diplomatic means. It also allows Filipinos to show that they embrace diversity and are willing to participate in resolving centuries of historical injustices, and bring about human security, social justice, progressive growth and equitable development to those who have been deprived.
Passing a BBL compliant with the CAB and past peace agreements includes returning effective control over and benefits of the natural resources in the Bangsamoro territory to the Bangsamoro, and ensuring genuine fiscal autonomy with a block grant being regularly and automatically released to the Bangsamoro government. The latter will serve as some sort of restitution for the injustices committed against the house owner over the decades.
Not heeding these just calls will only ensure that the house that is Mindanao will continue to remain divided and mired in conflict.
Gus Miclat is the executive director or the Initiatives for International Dialogue, a regional advocacy, peacebuilding and solidarity NGO based in Davao City. He is also the chair of the East Asia Democracy Forum, the secretary general of the Mindanao Peaceweavers and a convener of the All-Out Peace movement.
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