This afternoon, the consultative commission tasked with revising the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) proposal is submitting its work to the President. Allies of the President have urged him to simply forward the document being submitted today, to Congress next week, so ensure BBL gets out the gate and gets tackled sooner, rather than later. This suggests that the President will make submitting the BBL to Congress either the focal point, or at least one of the major highlights, of his second State of the Nation Address next week.
In accepting the report, the President has an opportunity to lay out not on only why he believes the BBL is important, but also, to create a favorable political momentum for one of the major objectives of his administration. In recent months his aims for Mindanao have been overshadowed by terrorism and the Battle of Marawi. This second wind for the BBL gives him a chance to reframe the narrative for Mindanao.
One thing is obvious: he does not intend to repeat the mistake of President Arroyo, when she announced the proposed BJE-MOA in her State of the Nation Address. The proposal was made without warning. So much so, that at the time, analysts and commentators, with very few exceptions, didn’t even notice she’d made a historic announcement. When people finally realized just how important her announcement was, government had lost the initiative and found itself on the defense, eventually losing the argument.
The BJE-MOA failed due to several reasons. Politically speaking, first and foremost, was the element of surprise. It meant that panic due to misinformation spread like wildfire, as Christian towns and provinces got alarmed over the possibility they would be included in the Bangsamoro. Even other Moro areas got uneasy, as the new entity threatened to disrupt existing power relationships. Then, the plan suffered a reversal in the Supreme Court, which decided some of its provisions were unconstitutional.
These two factors led to efforts to ensure they wouldn’t be repeated, in the agreement between the MILF and the government that is the foundation for the BBL. First, consultations were held, to ensure no one would be taken by surprise. Second, efforts were made to ensure it would pass scrutiny if challenged before the Supreme Court. But the momentum was broken because of Mamasapano. Political factions that, until then, had to keep quiet because the international community and the domestic political situation were favorable to the BBL, recovered their voice. BBL ran out of steam.
President Duterte identified these problems and decided to tackle it in a different manner. First, he opened talks with the MNLF and assured them they would have a voice. Second, he revamped the consultative commission. Third, he pledged that objections on constitutional grounds would be addressed. Third, he raised an alternative possibility, Federalism. And fourth and most important of all, he put the full weight of his office behind continuing BBL.
The BBL is not about dismantling the Philippines, or creating a Malaysian protectorate in the South, or the setting up of a sub-state within the Republic.
What the BBL is, is the creation of a new entity that grants autonomy to the Bangsamoro, within the Republic, as an integral part of it, but in a manner that respects the customs and aspirations of the Moros who have decades of grievances behind them. It aims to give Moros a fair share of revenue and resources so that they can have what the rest of the country takes for granted: a peaceful, stable, functioning local government setup where they are no longer second-class citizens.
Important issues remain to be clarified to the public. Among the most complicated parts of any BBL are the revenue-sharing agreements, for example the share for the Bangsamoro and the national government, respectively, of income from minerals, future oil wells, and fisheries. Most BBL discussions envision a kind of parliamentary setup for the Bangsamoro in contrast to other parts of the country. There is the question of Sharia Law, and how those laws apply or don’t apply, to non-Muslims. And there is the question of territory, whether the Bangsamoro will be more, or less, than the present-day ARMM. And there is the question of the international partners in the peace process, particularly the EU and the United States, Malaysia, Japan, and Australia. Many of these relationships are currently complicated, but there is more optimism now than a few months ago, ironically because of the Battle of Marawi, which has resulted in renewing security ties, at least, with the United States and Australia, for example.
It will take a few days at least, to clarify whether the BBL as it’s been revised, includes the input of the MNLF, and substantially adheres to the BBL agreement already signed. The relationship between the BBL and proposals for Federalism also has to be clarified. It’s probably fair to say the various Moro leaderships are not too excited about Federalism, while quite a few of the President’s political and civil society allies are actually more interested in Federalism. Public ignorance about both the BBL and Federalism, on the other hand, remains high.
What we do know is a basic time frame put forward by advocates: From July to December of this year, culminating with President Duterte signing BBL into law by December. Then, from January to May, 2018, to obtain a victory in the plebiscite to approve the BBL. Finally, from June to July 2018, to obtain support from the ARMM leadership and enable a smooth transition to its replacement, the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority or BTA. This tells us the BBL must be put in place before the 2019 mid-terms. This is a narrow political window.
Politically speaking, making a big splash by submitting BBL to Congress next week is the easy part. Obtaining the votes in both the House and the Senate to enact BBL –without so many amendments that it’s either watered-down, or emerges substantially different from what it’s supposed to be—will be a challenge. The President does not have the luxury of time. Precisely because of the situation in Muslim Mindanao, the partners of the government in the peace process need to deliver to their followers, otherwise more radical groups will become more attractive to young Moros. Christian leaders and communities, on the other hand, have to be convinced to go beyond their traditional fears and biases and take the plunge, politically and economically. In this, traditional Moro political leaders must also be convinced to allow the MILF and MNLF to become important players.