A Bangsamoro Spring?

The Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to vote in May 11 on its public hearings’ report and endorsement to the House of Representatives plenary body of the proposed organic act to create the Bangsamoro entity that would replace the 25-year old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) regional government. The whole House in turn is scheduled to cast its verdict on May 18. From all indications, Congress will soon pass the BBL but not without some tweaking of a few provisions of the original draft as prepared by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), and after some delay caused by the intense public outcry against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the peace deal that was ignited by the Mamasapo incident.

There is so great a hope on the part of the nation as a whole but especially among majority of Muslim Filipinos and their Christian and Lumad communal neighbors in Mindanao that the BBL and its parent Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) will bring lasting and real peace and consequent socio-economic benefits to be enjoyed by them all. Yet even the National Peace Council, which Pres. Aquino created just over a month ago to conduct deep and wide consultation among the publics of the BBL to overcome the millstone effects of Mamasapano, has in its report cautioned that the basic law will not be a silver bullet, would not deliver instant and total peace. “There is no silver bullet that will erase all sources of violence,” said former Education Secretary Edilberto de Jesus, a member of the council. “There is no magic vaccine that will inoculate the country from problems of future misgovernance by corrupt and incompetent leaders,” a news report quoted him as saying in the council’s briefing to the Senate. That warning could have only come from an observation of the nation’s current governance and political conditions and, in particular, the experience of previous Mindanao peace deals especially the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA).

Alongside NPC’s report is the report of the Social Weather Station (SWS) on the “Filipino Public Opinion on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the Mamasapano Incident” that was commissioned by The Asia Foundation. Now being released to the public in bits, one of the findings is that an overwhelming majority of the autonomous region’s adult residents are optimistic about BBL’s peace and development prospects, although the nation as a whole is only 37 percent as hopeful. How will that reading sit and synthesize with these other findings: nationwide trust in the MILF is negative 61-percent (16% much trust/61% little trust/19% undecided); public approval/disapproval/undecided of BBL nationwide is respectively 23-48-28 or negative 24% while in the ARMM-core area the approval rating ranges from a low positive of +18 (Sulu) to a high of +80 (Maguindanao, MILF’s stronghold) with Basilan’s, Lanao del Sur’s and Tawi-Tawi’s falling in-between;

Of ambivalent importance is the ”sincerity” factor: 58% nationwide believe the government is sincere on fulfilling the provisions of its peace agreement with the MILF, while only 28% believe the MILF will deliver its part; but, in Mindanao the government – to – MILF sincerity rating ranges from Sulu’s lowest (45% – to – 49%) to Cotabato’s highest (86%- to – 99%).

In somewhat sum then, despite the high nationwide mistrust for the MILF, the people highly prefer a peaceful approach to resolve the Mindanao problem and to put their money on the government-MILF peace deal. Perhaps, the one good effect of the Mamasapano tragedy is that it opened the eyes of people to the total futility – and ultimate injustice – of armed violence from wherever side it comes from (like those that’s been raging for years in the Middle East).

But, wait. While the peace council has said the BBL is not a silver bullet and warned that it will not mean instant and total peace, what can the MILF promise or do to make BBL a much better, more effective project than the FPA and other past autonomy initiatives? Until now the MILF has remained somewhat a mystery as an organization and has argued that it is “revolutionary” and therefore aloof and above the current peace process fray. That there are Moro factions that oppose it means that the mistrust is not of the general society alone but also internal among organic Bangsamoro communities. Would not its coming out from behind its bamboo curtain at this stage of the peace process foster a spirit of Bangsamoro glasnost and “Moro Spring” among the different Moro groupings, bring about a better peace and sooner, too? The clamor for inclusivity and security for all Bangsamoro peoples can probably not be fulfilled from above or from law-making alone but from reformist action or activism from the grassroots. That the MILF has created a political party to open opportunities to all Moros to participate in that democratic yet uniquely Moro struggle offers real hope for peace and all its promises. (ZABIDA)

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Two Autonomous Regions Again: Why Not?

The Islamic Central Command, a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), recently asked for a regional autonomous government separate from the political entity which would be created through the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The idea was floated in the heels of a similar one, that of having two autonomous regions, which Sen. Alan Peter Cayateno said he will push for in the Senate. The idea itself is not new, since the Tripoli Agreement’s implementation got off with the creation by ex-Pres. Marcos of two such regional autonomous governments, one in Western and the other in Central Mindanao. They existed during the 1980s, until the two were unified under the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which ex-Pres. Cory Aquino created in her desire to end the Moro rebellion by an appeasement with MNLF chief Nur Misuari. But Misuari eventually rejected Cory’s formula as he did Marcos’, until ex-Pres. Ramos mobilized international pressure to get Misuari to finally sign a new peace deal, which is the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA).

Today, 19 years after it was sealed, Misuari continues to stand by the FPA, despite and because of which he has initiated a few armed jabs at the government. The latest, of course, was his adventure in Zamboanga City in September 2013, which was his way of strongly expressing his opposition to the emerging peace deal that a year later came in the form of the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB). Not only does he oppose the CAB, but he also insists that the FPA has not yet been fully implemented by the government. No amount of marketing of the BBL will likely make Misuari change his characteristically hard-headed stance, and it will probably outlive him.

Re-creating two Muslim-dominated autonomous regional governments can simplify the complicated issues and calm the inculturated fears that hound the BBL project. Let the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – where the MNLF has greater presence and influence than the MILF – remain under the ARMM (and thus preserve FPA); then let the present ARMM provinces in Central Mindanao – Lanao del Norte and Maguindanao, where the MILF is more dominant than the MNLF – get subsumed under the BBL once it hurdles Congress, which will become easier a feat if and when its territorial jurisdiction is cut by more than half. BBL will cover more territory than the present two ARRM provinces in central Mindanao, since it lists more towns outside of those two’s, plus it can employ its contiguous areas proviso later down the line.

The protracted effort by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to re-unify the MNLF and MILF is probably an impossible dream, and one which further distorts the overall peace process. The Islam religion is apparently the only meaningful commonality that the two rebel fronts’ constituents share, which enabled them to rebel and rise as one to fight for independence neither too long nor too soon ago. But geographically, culturally and historically they differ enough such that putting them in one autonomous boat will make that boat navigate in circles, never to reach an illusory or mythic common homeport. The sultanates (as distinct bodies politic) of Jolo and Maguindanao and Lanao were and never will be, in whatever form they may transpose into now and in the future, be one kingdom in heart and mind. It was only a matter of time for the MILF to split away from the MNLF.

Not that re-creating two autonomous regions will be a breeze as well. For one, Misuari is still obsessing on the inclusion of the 10 provinces mentioned in the FPA despite its plebiscite results constituting only the five present provinces – and the OIC continues to support Misuari in this issue. The issue can probably be resolved through a referendum covering those 10 provinces inside next year’s elections, or even made a part of the plebiscite to ratify the BBL.

Limiting the BBL to central Mindanao should make it easier for the MILF to serve its primary or native constituents, who exclude generally the natives of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, making such programs as the decommissioning of forces and rapid socio-economic development easier for the MILF to achieve. Time for everyone in Mindanao is no longer a luxury, except for the eternal mujaheedins.

As for Zamboanga City, having two autonomous region will free it from a nagging sense that it is pressed by the devil on the right and the deep blue sea on the left, proverbially speaking. Remaining under a vise-like security red alert, facing deadly threats day in and out for too long is not good for its residents’ psycho-social and economic health. That is why it is necessary to think and act out of the box now, tomorrow may be too late. (ZABIDA)

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Can Manila Afford/Win Another, More Radical Moro War?

In a statement to wrap up their fact-finding study mission to Mindanao last week, an international team of women peace advocates among other things said:

“The continuing IDP situation in Zamboanga city is untenable and unproductive both for the displaced themselves and the local government. Approximately 7,000 families are still residing in the grandstand since September 2013, and we fear that the lack of resolution to their plight could make the youth, in particular, desperate and angry, and more susceptible to radicalization.”

In addressing the apprehensions of both Muslim and Christian residents of the region that the Masasapano Affair may abort the Bangsamoro peace deal, the team further said:

“All parties seemed especially concerned with the possible resumption of war, should the peace agreement not be implemented. It was acknowledged by young and old that should that occur, the youth in particular would, as in Zamboanga, be susceptible to radicalization.”

One of the groups the women met during their February 13-23 visit via Manila to Cotabato and Zamboanga was the latter city’s Interreligious Solidarity for Peace (ISP), which works closely with the Zamboanga-Basilan Development Alliance, Inc. (ZABIDA) in various peace-building projects and activities. The mission was organized and sponsored by the USA-based Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice as part of its series of Asian conferences on the subject of “Defying Extremism”.

Extremism and its consequent violent expression in the form of terrorism is at the heart of the Masasapano tragedy. The objective of the top-secret raid last January 25 by elite Special Action Force policemen to that remote village was to capture or kill archterrorists Zulkifli “Marwan” Binhir and Basit Usman. Taking a very calculated risk, the President probably – or, increasingly apparently – set loose his SAF posse, who killed Marwan. But in what may later be found to be glitches in their operation, the troops instead of withdrawing under the cover of darkness were overtaken by daylight and by the MILF and BIFF rebels.

This resort to armed force without showing his direct hand in it now seems typical of the President, from the assault on the tourist bus in Luneta involving Chinese tourists, the full-scale battle against MNLF rebels in Zamboanga, the subsequent long and ongoing campaign against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu, and then the raid in Maguindanao.

The shocking wholesale death of 44 SAF commandos ignited intense anti-Muslim and anti-Moro rebels sentiments in the country, and the painstakingly-negotiated Bangsamoro peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is increasingly facing a long delay in its implementation, if at all it survives the calls for war and antagonisms. The hawks shriek that the MILF cannot be trusted or expected to deliver peace by a grant of self-rule powers because of its alleged associations with terrorists, that it provided sanctuary to Marwan and his likes.

But can Manila afford or much less win another Moro war this time around? Many among the pro-war ranks admit that the military option may fail as it has since the start of the conflict more than 40 years ago to decisively quash the Moro rebellion. Militarily speaking it has been a stalemate of sorts, but by forcing the MNLF and MILF to drop secession the government has won the war through diplomatic means by getting the support of the Organization of Islamic Countries and other international bodies in its offer of self-rule and autonomy to the Moros. Now, the expanded and vocal opponents of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) fear that the MILF will use the law to shield terrorists and to eventually secede.

Yet, summarily killing the peace deal and fighting the MILF will quickly draw more terrorists from abroad and within to the side of the MILF and MNLF rebels, which will likely turn Mindanao if not the whole country into a new theater of the violent extremism that now rocks the Middle East. Both rebel fronts will go back to secession, or be forced to. It will be fueled by religious motives, unlike the MNLF’s initial struggle when it was roundly ascribed as only political and historical in nature. So much in struggles for national liberation has changed since, including the use now of social media.

With the BBL, the MILF will be forced to be government’s ally in its drive to curb terrorism in the country and the world’s in Southeast Asia, the promise land of Marwan’s Jemaah Islamiyah. If however the BBL will lead to secession, it would only enable the inevitable – new nations have been formed in modern times on the basis of cultural identity to finally resolve bloody internal conflicts. The Moro struggle dates back to Spanish colonial times, and current religious awakening is giving it new impetus.

It is this religious element that makes interfaith approaches like the ISP’s a relevant and worthwhile option, which even the overly-armed United States is now tapping to counter extremism and terrorism. Interfaith peace-making is potent not only because of the inherent power of religious beliefs to alter behavior but because it necessarily harnesses the conservative middle class and intellectuals, like the present leadership of the MILF, and it is this layer of society who historically have been behind the success of democratic revolutions.

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Will the Pope Endorse the Bangsamoro?

Would Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines this week (January 15-19) endorse the ongoing hot-topic Mindanao peace process, particularly the passage of a new organic law for a Bangsamoro autonomy? This is not too remote a possibility since surely he comes equipped with a Jesuitly-thorough staff work on the issues, challenges and problems facing the nation and a now famous extraordinary capacity to discern clearly and act courageously. He has often shown his concern about the pan-Islamic ferment and its violent upheavals in more than half of the world’s regions, and the Bangsamoro issue is a thread in that phenomenon. His visit offers him a chance for concrete rather than symbolic action. “Mercy and Compassion”, the theme of his visit, requires hard action.

That he has invited two Muslim leaders to an interfaith dialogue on January 18 is in itself praiseworthy, an indication of his visit’s agenda. On the hand, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has reportedly sent him, through Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, an invitation to visit its camp as a side trip. Prof. Ali Yacub, the Muslim convenor of Zamboanga City’s Interreligious Solidarity for Peace, called the invitation “a true Muslim act of brotherhood”.

In a statement regarding the Pope’s visit, Office of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process undersecretary Atty. Jose Yusuf Lorena said: “The visit of the Pope here would definitely boost our search for lasting peace. The Pope in many occasions has always worked for the strengthening interfaith dialogue. In fact, he earlier visited the Kingdom of Jordan because it traces its roots to Prophet Mohammad, and even made pronouncements that despite the terroristic actions of ISIS not all Muslims should be branded as terrorists. This would serve us as a guide to the leadership here and Catholics in the country to positively respond to that statement and therefore that would bridge interfaith understanding, harmony and peace

“With the prejudice more or less negated by the pronouncement of the Pope with respect to all Muslims, the Christians communities may be more open to the organization of the Bangsamoro government in the autonomous region in Mindanao and will therefore lead them to possible support of the passage of of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.”

Other than the Bangsamoro question, no other local issue – not for lack of them – that could relate to the papal visit has been raised before the public. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines had declared 2015 as the Year of the Poor. Economic poverty and oppression is the Pope’s top priority, too. Will his visit leave behind Filipinos richer not only in spirit but also in new life?

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