By Gus Miclat
Initiatives for International Dialogue
DAVAO City — A few years ago, an Ilongo settler working for a peacebuilding program in a parish in Central Mindanao told me an analogy of the Bangsamoro situation. His story has become more urgent in the light of the deliberation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in the bicameral committee of the joint Houses of Congress.
He said that the plight of the Bangsamoro is like this:
Once upon a time, someone owned a spacious house with plenty of rooms. One day, a friend of the house owner who arrived from another island asked if he could stay in his house. The owner said “of course” and even asked his friend to choose from any of the vacant rooms to settle in.
The friend came back the next year tagging along yet another friend with some relatives and asked if they can also stay in the house. Again, the owner agreed as his house was huge and there were ample space to spare. He asked them to go and choose any room of their liking.
The same thing happened year after year with the friends or relatives of the friends of the friend arriving, seeking for a room to use. And year after year, the house owner allowed them to settle in any available room in his house. But there were also times when the settlers just arrived taking any room to their liking without asking permission anymore from the house owner.
Until there was only one room left. This was the room where the house owner and his own family stayed.
But the settlers kept coming and had the temerity to demand that the house owner give up his remaining room for them! That was like virtually giving up his entire house! The owner refused and eventually fought to even reclaim some of the rooms grabbed by the settlers.. Alas, to no avail.
Bad blood flowed between the erstwhile friends. After a long time of incessant fighting and misery to mostly the house owner and his family, the house owner acceded that he at least be allowed to retain his own room where he can raise his family and conduct their lives as they saw fit. He was not anymore trying to get back the other rooms he did not give away nor that were grabbed. But the settlers – together with their cohorts in the faraway other island—deemed that they should still be the ones to determine how the virtually erstwhile house owner should manage the only room left for himself.
You must get the drift by now.
The house is Mindanao. The Bangsamoro people – together with their kindred Indigenous Peoples — are the house owner. And the settlers are, well, mostly the settlers and those from the outside who are profiting from exploiting, extracting if not pillaging the rich resources in Mindanao. The cohorts are the parade of national governments and politicians specially the ones who are not from Mindanao but who want to decide the fate of everyone in the island including those from that puny room left for the house owner.
The room of the house owner is the current and envisioned Bangsamoro territory.
The fate of this room and of the house owner is going to be deliberated in another “house”—the bicameral committee of Congress. The house owner, through the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has agreed with the settlers and their cohorts to negotiate how to manage their room.
An accord was eventually inked in 2014 called the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and a Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) – composed of “representatives” of the house owner and settler/cohorts were tasked to draft the enabling edict, eventually producing a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). However, the cohorts will still have the last say over the house owner’s fate as the BBL could be amended, tweaked, diluted or enhanced by Congress through the bicameral committee.
Already, the original BTC version has been heavily pared down in both the House and Senate versions of the BBL.
The analogy might not totally capture the entire Mindanao story, as there are other factors and actors at play on the ground, but it aptly encapsulates the Bangsamoro narrative of them being “politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized in their own homeland”.
Decades of historical injustice, land dispossession and human rights violations perpetrated upon them by countless governments starting with the American colonialists over a century ago can indeed be finally addressed by an inclusive BBL. Diluting the spirit and letter of the proposed law can only spell the furtherance of this injustice, alienation and conflict.
Already, observers note that the BBL versions that will be deliberated upon by the bicameral have substantially reduced the powers of the proposed Bangsamoro Government envisioned in the proposed BBL drafted by the BTC. They allege that they have transferred a substantial number of the exclusive powers in the CAB and embedded in the BTC-drafted bill to the reserved powers of the National Government or to the concurrent powers that will be shared by the National Government and the Bangsamoro Government. This does not include those that were either deleted or reduced.
According to the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), in the House of Representatives, the reserved powers of the National Government have increased from 9 to 20. The list of concurrent powers has increased from 14 to 21, thereby reducing the exclusive powers for the Bangsamoro Government to nearly half, if we bring together those amendments from both chambers of Congress.
The CBCS says even more concerning is the amendment that changes the whole concept of exclusive powers, by subjecting the exclusive powers of the Bangsamoro Government to not only the Constitution, but also to national laws. This further diminishes the Bangsamoro Government’s power as a self-governing entity and effectively throws away the very essence of meaningful autonomy, as policies decided by the National Government are made effective and controlling in the exercise of exclusive powers in the Bangsamoro territory.
In a meeting between then Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte and Moro civil society and other peace advocates under the banner of the “All-Out Peace” (AOP) in Davao City before the 2016 elections, we sought his support for the passage of an inclusive BBL and pitched it as a “pilot” or template for his federalism project. He agreed saying that his only concern of the BBL then is to ensure that the chain of command with regards to security forces clearly remain with the central or national government. Those who met him gave the assurance that was not the intent of the BBL.
For as the CBCS lucidly points out an inclusive BBL indeed guarantee “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”.
Upon his accession as President, Duterte promised to address the historical injustice experienced by the Bangsamoro. This was of course met with the warmest of welcome and thunderous applause from the Bangsamoro and all peace-loving Filipinos.
An inclusive BBL can deliver on that promise. And is indeed the right step towards addressing the roots of violent conflict in Mindanao.
The BBL recognizes the legitimate cause of the house owner for self-determination through meaningful autonomy of how the room left for her is managed. And as the CBCS continues, the Bangsamoro becomes more of an opportunity and an ally of national development rather than a problem. This can eventually lead to the process of healing towards unity and reconciliation between the house owner, settlers and their cohorts.
This is the second attempt to pass a BBL. During the previous Aquino administration, the first attempt to pass it was a cinch but ultimately failed after the infamous Mamasapano incident transpired.
This administration is even avowedly “friendlier” to the aspirations of the Bangsamoro. Despite what happened to Marawi. And the ongoing air strikes at alleged nests of Maute remnants, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) and Isis-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 indeed provide a meaningful autonomy to the only room left for the Bangsamoro.
The BBL is aimed at enhancing the power of the house owner so he can improve the lives of his family; end the violent conflict and foster unity and reconciliation.
The bicameral committee is holding the lever of history.
If it wants to render genuine justice to the house owner it must restore those deleted or transferred powers of the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous government. It must allow the house owner and his people to exercise their powers with minimal intervention from National Government.
To liberally quote the CBCS: “Enacting a BBL that addresses the root causes of the conflict and provides for meaningful autonomy is not only good for the Bangsamoro. It is also an opportunity for the Philippine Government to show that it is able to address violent conflicts, such as that in Mindanao, through diplomatic means. It likewise allows the majority Filipinos to show that they are able to embrace diversity and willing to participate in a project that aims to resolve a centuries-old problem stemming from historical injustices, and bring about human security, social justice, progressive growth and equitable development nearer to reality for segments of society that have been deprived of these.”
Essentially what this means is passing a BBL that is compliant with the CAB and all other related agreements and is bestowed with ample powers as a way of addressing the historical injustice to the house owner. This means– among others– returning effective control over and benefits of the natural resources in the Bangsamoro territory (house) to the Bangsamoro (house owner) and providing a high level of fiscal autonomy with the block grant being regularly and automatically released to the Bangsamoro government. The latter will serve as some sort of restitution to 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 remain divided and in perpetual 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.)