According to Mohager Iqbal, chairman of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, enactment by Congress of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) would bring to a close the suffering of the Bangsamoro people, foster unity, bring about economic development and end radicalism among Muslims in the Southern Philippines.
Citing the recent Scottish referendum in which those against independence from Britain won and Scotland decided to remain under the Union Jack, Iqbal was also confident that the Bangsamoro entity would not rift the country apart but rather unify it. But this could be wishful thinking because at this stage, the new Bangsamoro state is still very much an elusive dream.
|Supporters of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro show their|
jubilation upon signing of the agreement between the Philippine government
and the MILF peace panels.
Even if the Aquino-controlled Congress could easily steamroll the enactment of the BBL, it is likely to face a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court, and its ratification by the constituents of the Bangsamoro nation is not expected to be a sure thing. With the growing spectre of the Islamic State in the Middle East (ISIS or ISIL) reportedly having reached Southern Philippines, particularly among the more radical and disenchanted members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the formerly Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Sayyaf, the urgency of a Bangsamoro state looms even more urgent as the only peaceful alternative to a never-ending insurgency or to the establishment of a dreaded Islamic Caliphate in Mindanao.
There are constitutional landmines that the BBL needs to hurdle before Congress can enact the law. Assurances from the government panel that amending the Constitution is not necessary only appear to blindside the obvious constitutional questions. The new Bangsamoro entity envisaged under the BBL will clearly have a wide range of political powers not hitherto delegated or devolved to any other existing political subdivision like a province, city or town. The mere idea of forming a substate or a nation within a bigger nation is inconceivable because the Philippine Constitution does not allow it.
Pursuant to the mandate under the current Philippine Constitution, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created on August 1, 1989, through Republic Act No. 6734. The ARRM was officially inaugurated on November 6, 1990, in Cotabato City.
President Benigno Aquino III has said that the ARRM experiment was a complete failure because of corruption that plagued the new entity. In repealing the organic act that created the ARRM, the proposed BBL however goes beyond the framework of the current Constitution under Section 15. For one, the BBL undermines the national sovereignty as well as the territorial integrity of the republic.
Although the BBL states that the Bangsamoro territory shall remain part of the Philippines, there are doubts however that it could be a preparation for ultimate secession from the republic. With a different government from the rest of the country based on the parliamentary system, exclusive and concurrent powers with the central government, and a shariah justice system for Muslims only, the BBL looks like a complete and comprehensive template not just for self-government, but for eventual independence.
Recall that the concept of a Bangsamoro nation is not the original creation of the peace panel that helped draft the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Muslims or Moros in Mindanao have long believed they could not identify with the rest of the country, thinking that they do not belong. It has always been their claim that they were a sovereign people before colonization by Western powers, that their integration was forced upon them. It was this lost identity that led to the formation of the Mindanao Independence Movement in Cotabato in 1968, and later embraced by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This stirring for a separate nationhood is evident in the slogan of The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that seceded from the MNLF and is now the major partner of the current administration for the enactment of the BBL: “We are Moros, not Filipinos.”
But if the BBL is the most viable non-violent alternative to Muslim self-determination in the south, then it should be laid out to the front so that the current Philippine Constitution could be appropriately amended to reflect that objective. The current text in the Constitution on the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao is obviously insufficient to accommodate a Bangsamoro territory as envisaged by the BBL.
The problem with the current Aquino administration is its inability to stay within the parameters of the Constitution as evidenced by the pork barrel allocations and illegal transfers of government funds, and its lack of respect for equal protection under the law when apprehending perpetrators of corruption. The notion that the state can just suspend the fundamental rights of individuals by detaining them without trial reeks of injustice and offends the rule of law.
President Aquino and Congress should not cut corners in enacting a law that promises so much for our Muslim brothers in the south. In these crucial times when Western powers are being tested by a nascent and more extreme form of Muslim radicalism, one serious misstep like an error in constitutional judgment can foment and provoke choosing violence as the only available option for self-government.
The history of the Muslim struggle for self-government antedates the Philippines’ own independence movement against the Spanish and American colonizers. In the 1950s, the Kamlon uprising reminded us that the Moro rebellion has not been finished after the Philippines became independent from the United States in 1946. Beginning in the 1970s, secession had become the battlecry of the Moros of Mindanao. The MNLF waged a three-decade war against the central government until it accepted political autonomy under the 1996 peace agreement. But that didn’t last long and the MILF seceded from the MNLF which also spawned other disenchanted and more radical factions of the Muslim secessionist movement.
The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the MILF and the present government probably has the best chance of achieving the lasting peace that has eluded all previous attempts toward a negotiated settlement of the Muslim problem. But if the government of President Aquino fails to deliver the Bangsamoro state to the MILF, what could be the last option for the Muslim rebels but embrace the more radical jihad of the Islamic State. They would seem better off to continue fighting for their own independence since that would ensure loyalty to their Islamic traditional beliefs, whether they follow the revivalist practices of Wahhabism espoused by Saudi Arabia or the extremism of Al Qaeda or of the ISIS.
Fixing the constitutional shortcomings of the BBL is not the only problem the government must do to satisfy the MILF. Conducting the plebiscite to get the ratification of the BBL is in itself a huge challenge. The proposed law is a voluminous text for the constituents of the Bangsamoro territory to digest and understand before they can make up their minds whether to ratify the law. The plebiscite is not just going to be like a referendum on sovereignty where a simple question that can be answered by a yes or no would suffice.
An example of a question which needs to be asked is how would the separability clause in the BBL be implemented in the event that some provisions of the BBL are rejected. How would that influence the entire law, or should it be allowed to stand despite some paragraphs being struck down?
If the constitutional objections to the BBL are cleaned up, the promise of the Bangsamoro state is an ambitious undertaking that could either break or make the Aquino administration. Previous presidents have failed, yet this current president who is perceived to be without a strong character but with the moral certitude bigger than the sum of his personality, could possibly emerge as a champion for the Muslim minority in the South if he knows how to play his cards correctly.