A country without heroes is a country without soul

Mr. President, esteemed colleagues,

We stand now at a crossroads of our nation’s history, and are faced with a momentous choice. We can move forward, or we can fall back. We can descend into war and death, or create peace and prosperous life.

I am sure that we all agree that there is only one clear, resounding choice we can accept: the choice of peace. Peace is the clarion call of our time. Peace is the cry of our people. And so, peace there shall be. Peace in mindanao, peace throughout our land.

But peace, Mr. President, cannot be achieved and cannot be sustained if it is not an inclusive, all-embracing peace. Peace cannot only be for the benefit of Muslims, or Christians, or only for the MILF, or the MNLF, or the BIFF. Peace cannot distinguish between Filipino and Moro, between Tausug and Maranao, between Lumads and other Indigenous peoples. Peace must embrace all faiths and all peoples. Peace must respect and uplift all cultures and beliefs. Peace is not and cannot be exclusive; it is inclusive.

War and conflict is not an option. It never was, never will be, and never should be. After the tragedy of mamasapano, the desire for vengeance could seduce even the peace-minded. And sadly, in our midst even today there are those who insist that total war against the milf and other rebellious movements is the real solution.

That is wrong, but understandable. Who could not feel rage and anguish, after seeing the courageous SAF 44 mercilessly slaughtered by elements of the MILF and BIFF, some even after they were wounded, disarmed, and helpless, their equipment and even personal effects stripped from them and passed around as war trophies, or sold on the black market to be used later against their own comrades?

That we have not responded with violent revenge is a blessing we owe to the widows and families of our fallen SAF 44, who have displayed courage and a burning desire for peace every bit the equal of their slain loved ones. In the midst of personal grief and loss we can scarcely imagine, they have shown us the grace of choosing the righteous path. They asked only that justice be served. They choose this path despite their families having been torn apart. They choose this path despite their brave loved ones having been abandoned by their leaders, first in a hopeless battle in which they were outnumbered and outgunned, and many times after, when their government failed – nay, rejected – every opportunity to honor the fallen SAF 44 with the decency, respect, and honor befitting those who have given their lives for our country.

They choose the path of peace. And so shall we.

Our heroes died for peace, and we honor them because a country without heroes is a country without a soul.

This is why the Basic Law of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region we have created with great effort and the help of many people is so important. Our heroes are best honored with deeds, not words, and there can be no greater honor than to finish the task for which they gave their lives, because in honoring our heroes, we honor the Philippines, and all its diverse people.

We should not, and we cannot fail them, Mr. President.

I accepted the challenge and made a commitment to correct the many flaws of the original Bangsamoro Basic Law because I believe in peace. I recognize, as our people do, that this law is necessary to achieve that peace. But it can only meet that sacred goal if it is a law that is constitutional, a law that is all-embracing, inclusive of all who have been tragically affected by the conflict as well as every Filipino, a law that honors our heroes and what they fought and died for.

And so we proceeded carefully, with respect for the future we are all trying to create for this country. We proceeded by being inclusive, and inviting the consultation of every affected stakeholder. We proceeded according to the laws of our land, and the desire of every Filipino for peace.

We proceeded in this careful, thoughtful way because unfortunately, Mr. President, our leadership did not. From the very beginning, the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the “comprehensive” agreement from which it was derived were not inclusive.

From secret meetings in hotel rooms, held in faraway places at the sole discretion of the president of the republic and disregarded the constitutional authority of this very body in deliberating treaties; to the hasty accession to every demand of the MILF by our negotiating team; to the exclusion of all other stakeholders, the conduct of talks and creation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in its original version only served to raise fears and suspicions. Many of our people have accused these leaders of ‘selling out’, and putting the peaceful integrity of our republic at grave risk. Some have even gone so far as to characterize the conduct of these leaders as treasonous.

Many have openly questioned, as do I, why Malaysia was invited to be the facilitator and moderator of these talks. Malaysia, which stubbornly refuses to recognize our rightful claim to sabah. Malaysia, which has, at least in the recent past, given shelter and aid to separatists and terrorists against the filipino people. Malaysia is not a disinterested party, whose only goal is to aid the creation of peace. Malaysia’s involvement only raises suspicions about the loyalties of those in the new bangsamoro region, and raises justifiable fears of the “balkanization” of our land, and the irretrievable loss of our rightful territory in Sabah.

Obviously, I would not have chosen Malaysia to assist us in this all-important endeavor. I suspect many of you would not have done so, either. That, however, cannot be undone now.

But what can be undone, and what we have undone, are the unacceptable and harmful conditions and provisions our president and our negotiating team thoughtlessly accepted in their haste to earn accolades for their work.

Let me be clear: we strive for peace. We must have peace, and we shall have peace. But we will not have peace at the expense of our sovereignty. We will not have peace by surrendering our land at the behest of the leadership of Malaysia, which, while a respected neighbor and valuable regional partner in many other ways, seeks only to advance its own interests in mindanao and Sabah at the expense of the people of the Philippines. We cannot have a peace that violates our own Supreme Law, the Constitution. And we certainly will not have peace if it excludes even one of the many groups who have suffered through the long years of conflict and the poverty it has caused.

Our version of the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region fulfills the duty that we in this august chamber must fulfill, to protect the national interests of the Republic of the Philippines. It reserves to the National Government those powers enshrined in our constitution: the responsibility for national defense, and internal and external security; foreign affairs; monetary policy and management of the broader financial system; matters of citizenship and immigration; maintenance of the postal service; trade, customs, and tariffs, other than those responsibilities already granted to the region through R.A. 9054; protection of intellectual property rights.

The Basic Law addresses the first and most important prerequisite to peace – the definitive end to armed conflict – by providing an efficient, verifiable program of disarmament and demobilization, overseen by an independent monitoring body, and providing the needed financial and social assistance to former fighters to become peaceful and productive members of society. It renounces war as an instrument of policy, and instead provides the governing structures and dispute resolution mechanisms needed to create a peaceful society managed through means that are morally and practically superior to armed conflict. It maintains the constitutional responsibility of the national government to maintain peace and order by making the Bangsamoro Police Force an integral part of the PNP. While encouraging and supporting the unique culture and social structure of the muslim community, it clearly defines the rights of non-muslim citizens of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, the traditional sultanates, tribal communities and other indigenous peoples, and women, children, and otherwise disadvantaged citizens.

Furthermore, while the Basic Law recognizes that changes and amendments may be necessary in the future, it preserves the supremacy of the republic by making those changes subject to the approval of congress.

Another important way the national interest is defended, however, is by fulfilling – to the extent that our Constitution and National Sovereignty can allow – the desires of the Bangsamoro people for meaningful autonomy. The people of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region wish for the right of self-determination over their internal affairs – this law provides that right, by establishing the local legislature, by granting authority to form necessary agencies and departments, and most especially by providing the framework by which our Muslim fellow citizens in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region can adhere to the unique principles of their faith by following Shari’ah Law, managing Hajj and Umrah affairs for citizens from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, and establishing a system of Islamic Finance, among others.

These rights and privileges are equitably extended to non-muslims and tribal people as well, with provisions made for the fair representation of the sultanates and tribal organizations in the parliamentary and other policy-making bodies. Likewise, inclusiveness of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region and people within the greater republic is guaranteed by provisions for representation in the legislative, judicial, and administrative bodies of the national government.

The Basic Law also provides a framework by which the rich natural resources of the region – which should and will primarily benefit its people, but rightly belong to all filipinos – can be equitably shared. A fair share of national revenues, as the constitution dictates must be provided to local governments, is also provided for, to ensure that the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region is financially sound and able to provide adequately for all its people. Key areas in which the region has chronically suffered from a lack of progress, for example, electricity generation and distribution, have been given special attention, with more flexibility granted to the local government to develop and regulate the regional infrastructure, within the bounds of national laws and complementary local laws regarding environmental management, industrial safety and standards, and investments.

These are the basic principles that were the guide to the writing of this substitute bill:

1) The primacy of our constitution which every citizen is mandated to obey and defend compels us to strike down any provision that is clearly in conflict with its letter and spirit based on our preliminary determination;

2) The autonomy of the constituent Local Government Units of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region as defined in the Local Government Code of 1991, as amended, should not be diminished. This is aligned with our national policy of decentralization;

3) The principle of checks and balances in all aspects of governance should be strengthened because this is the main reason why the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has failed;

4) While we recognize that substantial fund need to be pumped in to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for rehabilitation and development purposes, we should not overlook the fact that other regions and LGUs are equally in need of the same funding support. Hence, we risk an unequal distribution or allocation, which could potentially sow the seed of discontentment rather than unity amongst our countrymen. Thus, while we enhanced the revenue power of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, as well as financial grants from the National Government, additional funding for development purposes should be better left with Congress, through the yearly budgeting process;

5) The bravery and heroism of our SAF-44 had taught us many lessons, among which is that peace and order in the autonomous region should remain to be the primary responsibility of the national government, through our structured philippine national police;

6) The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural region. Thus, the Basic Law must be inclusive by ensuring that all groups are represented in all aspects of governance;

7) The history of armed struggle of a number of our muslim brothers with the latest formation of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a break-away group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, reveals that the struggle to establish a separate and independent state in that portion of our country remains a concern. It should therefore be clear that the proposed basic law will never be a vehicle for the establishment of an independent state;

8) Lastly, we go back to the fundamental premise that the organic law is about the continuing quest for the elusive peace in Muslim Mindanao. But peace cannot be achieved without an effective normalization process.

This representation fully adheres to the view that peace and development are as much primary objectives of the bbl as the enhanced autonomy for muslim mindanao that we are now granting to our brothers and sisters in the autonomous region.

And in order to elevate these objectives as paramount societal ideals and safeguard their immediate attainment, your committee has found the need to incorporate explicit provisions in the substitute bill, otherwise lacking in the original draft. Adoption by incorporation in the law is to imbue them decisively with the force and character of a legal mandate for the Bangsamoro Regional Government to accomplish, in partnership with the National Government.

This policy of “normalization” is hereby emphasized in the substitute bill as both a corollary and integral obligation, alongside this grant of enhanced autonomy to the erstwhile ARMM. It shall necessarily embrace the United Nations principles of “DDR” or Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration, so as to attune and peg the milestones of the normalization efforts to internationally acceptable standards of peacekeeping and post-conflict recovery, which have been developed by the un through years of effective remedial intervention in conflict areas all around the world.

Decommissioning of forces, as we call it in the substitute bill, both of combatants and civilians, shall be an integral component of our normalization policy, and as the crucial first-step to disarm, literally and figuratively, a portion of our people so used or so steeped in a culture of arms-bearing, fighting and killing. This is a time to restore mutual trust and confidence, otherwise lost or besmirched because of unwanted incidents in the past, but which we have all vowed to not allow us to relapse. This is a time to start over again. Hence, this is a time for our brothers and sisters to lay down our arms, and replace them with plows, tools of trade, books, computers, and other wholesome and more potent materials of creation—and not of destruction—and other building blocks of social development and progress.

Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, autonomy is a continuous process. Our definition too of autonomy to our local government units under our Local Government Code of 1991, as amended, is continually evolving. Our proposed redefinition of autonomy of the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao will certainly be revisited and again be redefined in the future, not on the strength of armed struggle, but in the pursuit of good governance for our people.

We strive for peace, and I believe this improved version of the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region provides the conditions by which peace can finally be achieved. It does so not just by delineating National and Regional Authority and providing effective mechanisms by which the region can be quickly demilitarized, but by focusing with great care on the root causes of the conflict which has persisted for far too long and brought nothing but misery and poverty to the people in this rich, underappreciated part of mindanao.

For too long, Mindanao has been somewhat dubiously referred to as the “land of promise” – aspirants for national offices, recognizing that in order to win elections on a national scale they must win in mindanao, have promised the sun, the moon, and the stars to its people. Sometimes those promises are accompanied by short-term largesse, dole-outs of food, minor development projects, medical and social assistance, but these little benefits have never benefited all mindanaoans equitably, and do not last. When the votes are counted and the campaign banners come down, the region is forgotten again, its people left to their despair, which leads to hopeless violence and provides fertile ground for those who seek their own gain at the expense of not just the people of Mindanao, but the entire Philippines.

By creating the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, I firmly believe we are creating the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity for all Filipinos, and it is in that spirit i have introduced the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for your learned deliberation. As the familiar saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Our southern lands are rich in natural resources, rich in agricultural potential, and rich in the culture and industriousness of its people. Some of our country’s most beautiful natural features are located there, but for far too long the beauty of the land, its wildlife, and its people have been isolated from the rest of the country and the rest of the world by a bitter, futile conflict.

By striving for a just peace, one that is inclusive and all-embracing, we strengthen ourselves and the entire nation. We become richer materially and richer in spirit by respecting the differences in the many cultures found among the filipino people, while welcoming those people to share in our collective work and rewards as brethren and partners. By striving for a just peace that spreads from Mindanao throughout our entire country, we create a bright beacon of hope and prosperity for our kindred in Sabah, and bring a future in which our nation can be once again made whole and united just that much nearer.

Peace is the first step on an endless golden road to the future. Peace leads to order, which leads to progress, which leads to prosperity and dignity for all. Peace is in the soul of our nation – it is what our heroes, the brave SAF 44 and so many before them, fought and gave their last breath to achieve.

We must not fail them. We must not fail those they left behind. We must not fail ourselves. We must have peace, and we shall, through this basic law we begin deliberating today. We stand now at a crossroads – let us choose the right path, the only path. The path of peace. May god bless our work, and may god bless the philippines.

Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, the Committees on Local Government; Peace, UInification and Reconciliation; and Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes are presenting to you Senate Bill No. 2894 under Committee Report No. 200 for the consideration of the Senate.

Thank you.

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