Peace Council Endorses Bangsamoro Basic Law – with Some Tweaks
May 6, 2015
It’s crunch time again for peacemaking in Mindanao. Both houses of the Philippine Congress are now considering the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the implementing legislation for the hard-won peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Originally scheduled to be passed early this year, the BBL would create a new regional government, the Bangsamoro, to replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. But the BBL stalled in committee after January’s deadly clash in Mamasapano, a botched raid that resulted in the deaths of 44 Special Action Force police, as well as 17 MILF fighters and five civilians. While the raid did succeed in killing a wanted terrorist, “Marwan,” the high death toll caused a national furor that derailed Congressional action on the BBL and emboldened skeptics to challenge the law.
Now time is running out: if there is to be any chance of completing the implementation, Congress must pass the BBL before it adjourns in mid-June. The House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee will vote beginning May 11, with floor debates to begin May 18. Should the House and Senate both pass the law, a plebiscite to ratify it must be held in Bangsamoro, and a transition authority established to prepare for regional elections, which will be synchronized with the national elections in May 2016.
To speed things up and return attention to the substance of the bill, President Aquino named a Peace Council to study the draft BBL. The Council consists of five prominent citizens: former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, business titan Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, former Ambassador Howard Dee, civil society activist Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. The Council examined the draft law and the objections that had been raised, using as reference points the Philippine Constitution and their own notions of social justice and economic development. They have testified before the House and Senate and submitted their report to the President. The report endorses the draft BBL – but with some tweaks.
One set of objections to the draft bill concerns the so-called “constitutional bodies” – Bangsamoro equivalents of the national commissions on elections, the civil service, audits, and human rights. Critics argue that, since these commissions are established by the 1987 Philippine Constitution as independent bodies, the BBL should not create separate, parallel bodies in the Bangsamoro. But because the draft bill specifies that the Bangsamoro bodies are “without prejudice to the powers, authorities, and duties” of the national commissions, the Peace Council concluded that there is no constitutional problem with their creation.
The Mamasapano incident also raised red flags about granting the Bangsamoro chief minister control of the Bangsamoro police force. The Peace Council points out that the chief minister’s proposed powers would be no different than those of city and municipal mayors. The draft BBL says that the police will not be separate, but “shall be part of the Philippine National Police.” The Council suggests resolving any doubts by adding “in accordance with Chapter III of the [Department of Interior and Local Government] Act of 1990.” The Council concludes, in what amounts to a political judgment, that while local governments may oppose this shift of control from them to the region, “it makes sense to put the position under the chief minister” to provide power over security and prevent abuses of police powers by localities.
One fear has been that the draft BBL is laying the groundwork for eventual independence – despite the clear statement in the draft that “the Bangsamoro territory shall remain a part of the Philippines.” The Council points out that having territory, inhabitants, and powers does not a sovereign entity make, and argues that the repeated reference to “territory” rather than to “area” does not, as some allege, imply a separate entity. The 1987 Constitution and the Local Government Code of 1991 both make repeated reference to “territory,” so that is standard usage in the Philippine legal system.
The Council did recommend two substantive changes to the draft law. The first arises from Council discussions regarding indigenous peoples inside and outside the Bangsamoro. The Council felt that a more comprehensive enumeration should supplement Article IX, Section 5, “Indigenous People’s Rights.” The Council admitted that the specifics of indigenous rights were beyond its competence, but felt that the voices of those affected by the BBL “must be heard in the policy-making process.”
The Council recommended one actual amendment, regarding future additions to the Bangsamoro territory. They had no objection to provisions for a plebiscite to ratify the law and decide which areas would be included in the “core territories.”
There is also provision for other, adjoining areas to petition for participation in the plebiscite. A further provision, however, caused consternation: in the future, contiguous areas could hold a plebiscite to join the Bangsamoro by virtue of a petition signed by 10 percent of the registered voters. This led to fears of “creeping annexation.” Proponents of this provision maintain that it holds out hope to Bangsamoro communities outside the core territories that some day they can join, should the Bangsamoro be successful. The Council, for its part, recommended the deletion of this provision, saying any such plebiscite would require an act of Congress, not just a simple petition from a contiguous area.
In the coming weeks, many possible changes to the draft BBL will be considered. The Council’s work of independent analysis has been an important step on the road to peace. Now the initiative lies with the legislature.
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and he can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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