In the end, what almost did not make the Bangsamoro Basic Law happen was not the Moro National Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Abu Sayyaf and the sundry armed groups that were opposed to the peace talks and had been vowing to make them fail. What did so were some of the provisions of the proposed law. Specifically, the invocation of “Allah” in the preamble, the reservation of the exploitation of the resources of the Bangsamoro to the Bangsamoro people, and the question of the President’s general supervision of the new entity.
Such was the level of dispute over these things that Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa, who to his credit never appeared in the news for his backroom work, preferring to stay in the shadows, met several times with Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Murad Ebrahim and chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal to thresh out the disagreements and come to a compromise. The compromise seems to have made both sides happy.
“Allah” was changed to “Almighty” to reflect the fact that Bangsamoro would also include Christians and indigenous peoples. “Reserved to the Bangsamoro people” was changed to “preferential rights of bona fide inhabitants” in the exploitation of resources. And the President’s general supervision in the Bangsamoro, which was absent in the original draft, was added.
These might seem like trivial semantic problems, but they are not so at all. These are political ones that carry huge significances. The last in particular is so affirming the fact that the Bangsamoro remains firmly entrenched in the Republic while exercising wide latitude of autonomy, including a parliamentary system, control over its armed forces, and retaining three-fourths of the taxes collected from it. It boldly goes where no Philippine government has gone before while adhering to the Constitution.
How important is the forging of the Bangsamoro Basic Law?
It is nothing less than historic.
At the very least, that is so because the creation of the Bangsamoro—once the bill is ratified and is approved by a plebiscite in the affected areas—holds the key to unlocking the economic potential of Mindanao. That has long been the dream of the World Bank.
The World Bank’s goal, says Matt Stephens, senior social development specialist of the World Bank in Manila, is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, a thing that won’t happen unless you eradicate as well strife, or mitigate it, in the strife-riven areas. Conflict and extreme poverty go hand in hand. In the Philippines, poverty levels in the conflict-affected areas, chief of them Mindanao, are double the national average. “With the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” says Stephens, “expectations are high for improved security and development.”
There’s solid backing for P-Noy’s assertion that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is a failed experiment, having done little to stop or mitigate the strife, which is the underlying cause of Muslim Mindanao “lagging behind” the rest of the country in progress. The Bangsamoro Basic Law addresses that underlying cause, forging the bonds of a lasting peace. It does boldly go where no Philippine government has gone before, ending a conflict that began longer than most Filipinos can recall.
It should be a particular source of pride for us, coming at a time when conflict marked by exceptional savagery and violence has erupted in many parts of the world, over religion, territorial issues, identity and ethnicity, the same things that have fueled the conflict in Mindanao over the decades. For us to have turned swords into plowshares at this time, which seemed impossible only a few years ago, that is a feat even more impressive, and inspiring, than having risen to our feet after being the sick man of Asia for very long. Twice, we have gone against the current of world trends, both causes for much elation.
Will peace be smooth sailing from here on?
Not really, for reasons that do not owe to the Bangsamoro bill quite possibly being rejected by Congress and by its prospective constituents. There’s only one thing stronger than the clamor for war, and that’s the longing for peace, a thing that will not allow opposition to stand in its path. The reasons for it owe to internal conditions or instabilities within the Bangsamoro itself.
International Alert’s Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System (BCMS), which gathers real-time data on the peace process in the Bangsamoro areas, lists some of these: the “shadow economies,” feuding clans and extrajudicial violence from armed groups/private armies/criminal syndicates. Of these, “shadow economies” top the list, accounting for more than a fourth of violence in the area over the last three years.
These—gunrunning, drugs, kidnap-for-ransom, human trafficking—are also called criminal economies for obvious reasons, but are called economies anyway because they have become ingrained and institutionalized in many communities and give livelihood to a variety of players. How government and the Bangsamoro deal with this with a view to allowing communities to transition into “normal” life will determine to a great extent the success or failure of the as yet fragile peace.
But there’s a positive note to all this in the end, in that the forging of the Bangsamoro drastically curbs the “human cost” of the conflict in Mindanao. BCMS cites that as one of its most crucial findings: “human cost” (death, injury, displacement) impacts more on war and peace than other factors. Basilan for example is only fourth in conflict incidence but second in human cost, suggesting that fewer can be deadlier, thereby producing deeper and more lasting effects. Curbing human cost, if not stopping it completely, jump-starts progress like an electrical charge.
That is quite apart from saving lives being a categorical, unconditional, absolute value in itself.
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