A day before the resumption of Congress’ session this week, government peace panel chief Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer appealed anew to the legislators for the speedy passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which has been stalled by extended public hearings, interpellations and lack of quorum in both chambers, on top of the investigations of the Mamasapano massacre. To emphasize BBL’s indispensability as the legal mechanism to operationalize the successes achieved by the peace negotiation of government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Prof. Ferrer argued: “Nothing can be taken away from all our gains in the peace process with the Moro fronts in Mindanao. We have proven to the world that we can put aside our differences, sit down, and actually attempt to reach consensus and compromise on how to effectively put armed conflict behind us.” The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) has, indeed, catapulted the Mindanao peace process to a logical point of no return, with or without the BBL.
“Let us act with wisdom and with full appreciation of the pressing and immediate need to correct this historical disunity,” she persuades the lawmakers.
The BBL was generally expected to sail smoothly in Congress when the President submitted it as a priority bill in September 2014. But four months later, the Mamasapano tragedy unleashed a Pandora’s box of widespread discrimination, anger and distrust towards Muslim Filipinos. Oppositionists and racists have since grabbed the situation to flog the BBL or milk the mess for political or other motives.
The government through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) with the GPH and MILF peace panels have since waged a massive effort to overcome Mamasapano’s adverse fallout. Despite it, the BBL’s fate remains unclear at this crucial moment when Congress is running out of session time and the lawmakers are obsessing with the coming elections. Even if the President would certify it as an urgent bill, as the MILF has asked, does PNoy have enough votes in Congress to get it approved now? With the elections coming up quickly, the political stakes may be too high for such a roll of the dice.
The albatross hanging from BBL’s neck may not be made up only of the deep-seated anti-Moro prejudices and mistrust among the majority Filipinos. Legitimate questions have been raised about the constitutionality of its parts, and of fears that the Bangsamoro will turn into a runaway political entity later. Some – even within the Moro communities – see it as divisive rather than inclusive. Even its authors have conceded that BBL, like other peace legislations elsewhere, is not perfect. And for a senator of the land, Tito Sotto, to wear in a popular TV show a Muslim attire as a scary Halloween trick is but another proof of the phobia that enchains the BBL.
One way to make the BBL more friendly even to fearful lawmakers may be found by giving more appropriate attention – heretofore little – to its own Article VI on “Intergovernmental Relations”. The article provides for a checkpoint “Central Government-Bangsamoro Government Intergovernmental Relations Body” to arbitrate disputes and issues through consultations and negotiations, the creation of a Council of Elders to protect and advance the interests of sectors and communities, establishment of a Philippine Congress-Bangsamoro Parliament Forum “for purposes of cooperation and coordination of legislative initiatives”, and assistance to Muslim Filipinos not residing within the Moro region. Exerting a central role in this backup mechanism is the regional chief minister, referring or deferring to the President whenever necessary.
But why not make that “Central Government-Bangsamoro Government Intergovernmental Relations Body” a presidential peace commission that develops and implements peace-building policies and programs, in addition to the fundamental BBL-prescribed function, merging into it the main OPAPP duties as well? All classified cultural sectors are represented in the commission (with the MILF retaining proportionate representation and power). Without getting into the way of the Bangsamoro, its main long-term job is to promote cultural identities not only of and among the divided tribes in the Bangsamoro but (many) others in serious states of conflict in Mindanao and nation – as entry point for strengthening political unification and cooperation towards socio-economic security and justice. As it is, for instance, the government has left it to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to unite the competing Moro fronts, leaving much of the core peace process to chance, which is fickle going by past record. Raising the level of cultural identities and ethnic respect and trust may be one way to promote and harmonize social relations, and from there develop rock-solid political unity and cooperation. Contrarily, as long as there is inter-cultural frictions and the political turfs it engenders (so ubiquitous among Filipinos), the natives will keep their guns for self-protection – and hardwired bogeymen Sottos will play “Trick or Treat?” every which way.