Emerging Issues in the Senate Deliberations on the Proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law

Let me begin by thanking the Office of the Vice-President for Public Affairs for having invited me to this forum. This is truly a big boost in my mission as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government to broaden the audience and knowledge base of the discussions about the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, as well as the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which had already been filed in Congress. This is not only to elicit as much as possible all the relevant and noteworthy opinions and views of our Muslim brothers and sisters, who are to form part of the Bangsamoro, and all our other concerned countrymen in Mindanao, but also to educate the Filipino people, on this very important component of our continual quest for peace and unity in our country.

In fact, to show my genuine interest in this proposal, I have deemed it wise to “uproot” our usual conduct of official business in Metro Manila, and bring the Senate hearings close to the hearts and the homes of our Muslim brothers and sisters. So far, we have held hearings in Cotabato City, Marawi City, and in the Municipality of Bonggao, Tawi-Tawi, and further hearings in Jolo, Sulu and Zamboanga City are in the offing.

This is consistent with the Senate’s resolution of support for the implementation of the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, in which we recognized that “partnership and mutual recognition among our peoples are crucial in the process of nation-building”. Indeed, Congress, particularly your Senate, is as much a part of this “partnership”, to assist in making this seemingly elusive quest for permanent peace and stability in Muslim Mindanao finally a reality, through the exercise of its constitutional duties.

This afternoon, I am tasked this afternoon to share with you some of the emerging issues in the Senate in relation to the pending Bangsamoro Basic Law bill.

In our discussions in the Senate, various legal issues such as whether the Bangsamoro is a “state within a state”, the form of its government (i.e., ministerial and parliamentary, but subject to the general supervision of the President), the concept of “asymmetric relationship” and the relation and balance of power between the Central Government and the Bangsamoro Government, its territory and the coverage of the term “Bangsamoro people”, its variance with our usual concept of a local government unit, among others, have all been put on the table and have been the subject of contentious discussions.

Although at this early stage of the hearings, I am still not in a position to share with you the individual comments and opinions of my colleagues in the Senate, allow me to give you a snapshot of the recurring issues that have been raised so far by the public in the hearings that we have so far held.

Core territory of the Bangsamoro

To begin with, please note that according to the Bangsamoro draft bill, the core territory of the Bangsamoro, which shall remain as part of the Philippines, consists of the present geographical area of the ARMM or the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao; the local government units that have voted to be included in the ARMM during the 2001 ARMM Plebiscite; cities of Cotabato and Isabela; and those contiguous areas by resolution of their local government units or by petition of at least ten percent (10%) of their registered voters. After which, a popular ratification shall then be held in these areas to determine acceptance by the inhabitants thereof.

Some issues have been raised about certain scenarios that may arise after the results of the popular ratification:

  • With regard to the petition to be included in the Bangsamoro, why does the bill not consider a reverse scenario or a mechanism whereby areas in the proposed core territory can petition to be excluded from the Bangsamoro territory?
  • In the bill, we also find a provision where a contiguous territory, but outside the core territory, can petition to be included in the Bangsamoro at “any time”. What is the timeframe for this window of opportunity?
  • After petitioning for inclusion in the Bangsamoro, can the LGUs thereafter petition for exclusion?
  • Or after deciding in the ratification to be excluded from the Bangsamoro, can such area thereafter petition for its inclusion?

Abolition of the ARMM

We are aware that the Bangsamoro Government is to replace the ARMM regional government that is currently in place since 2001, pursuant to Republic Act No. 9054. The last elections having been held in May 2013, the elected officers are vested with legal mandate to serve until June 30, 2016.

Upon ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law as envisioned under the bill, the ARMM regional government shall be deemed abolished, and the “gradual phase-out” of the offices under it shall then ensue.

However, because of the entailed abolition of the ARMM, issues have arisen regarding not only the tenure of the elected officials therein, but also the rights to security of tenure of some 33,000 ARMM employees working therein.

Consequently, one issue that arose was whether the employees whose positions would be abolished would be entitled to separation/retirement/abolition benefits.

Parliamentary districts vis-à-vis congressional districts

One may observe that the form of government being proposed under bill is a parliamentary and ministerial form of government, which means that there shall be representatives of the Bangsamoro parliament, which shall in turn elect its Chief Minister.

The parliamentary form being proposed necessary entails a process of districting and further redistricting, very much alike the apportionment and reapportionment of congressional districts under our Constitution.

Considering that we have existing congressional districts for the ARMM, this would mean that aside from the representation in the Parliament of the Bangsamoro Government there would also be co-existing representatives in the House of Representatives for the present ARMM congressional districts, since parliamentary districts are different and shall be apart from our present congressional districts.

Transition period for the establishment of Bangsamoro Government

To pave the way for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Government, a transition or interim period has been provided for under the draft bill. The period, which only lasts until 2016, is viewed as too short a time for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) to accomplish the immense tasks demanded by the Agreements, including the setting up the interim governance structures and the winding-up of the ARMM regional government, while maintaining an uninterrupted delivery of essential public services to the people. It was suggested that a three-year period, from 2016 to 2019, is an ideal and workable length of time.

However, despite reservations about the insufficient transition time, the parties are nonetheless bound to follow this tight schedule. The basis for this assumed timeframe is contained in the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, wherein it was specifically agreed that, “the Bangsamoro Transition Authority will be immediately replaced in 2016 upon the election and assumption of the members of the Bangsamoro legislative assembly and the formation of the Bangsamoro government.” In fact, no less than the Bangsamoro bill, as submitted to Congress, states in rather clear and categorical terms that, “the first regular elections for the Bangsamoro shall be held on the first Monday of May 2016”, by which time the transition phase shall have already terminated.

Maritime, fluvial and alluvial concepts; definition of “municipal waters”

As the core territory of the Bangsamoro also embraces the maritime, fluvial and alluvial domains, the draft bill proposes the kindred concept of “Bangsamoro waters”, as distinguished from “municipal waters” of an adjoining local government unit. Likewise proposed is the concept of “Zones of Joint Cooperation” in the Sulu Sea and the Moro Gulf.

The definitions and demarcations of these terms and concepts should be clearly spelled out so as to avoid possible conflicts of rights and entitlements over their use and enjoyment. And in this connection, it has also been suggested that in spite of the proprietary implications of the territorial boundaries of the Bangsamoro, the Philippines’ claim over Sabah should nonetheless be preserved and maintained.

MILF Disarmament & Decommissioning

An integral part of the Framework Agreement is the principle of Normalization, which is defined as the process whereby the communities can achieve their desired way of life and which aims to ensure human security. Normalization is sought to be achieved under the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law through intensified programs of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development.

An important and indispensable part of this whole process is the MILF’s commitment to undergo a graduated program of decommissioning and disarmament of its forces so that they are “put beyond use”, and the MILF combatants and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) ultimately integrated to productive civilian life with adequate socio-economic opportunities. They may likewise be absorbed in the Bangsamoro police force if necessary.

On the other hand, the Central Government has the obligation to defend and secure the Bangsamoro, and this obligation may entail the creation of a Bangsamoro Command of the AFP. In such case, the personnel of the MNLF should be absorbed in the Bangsamoro Command, in accordance with the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. Moreover, the CAFGU or the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit should also have to be deactivated.

All these concerns so far raised in the public hearings, and all the other issues and concerns that may be raised by my colleagues in the Senate, must all be adequately heard, convincingly explained by the proponents, and which then ultimately might need to be timely addressed and appropriately remedied through changes and adjustments in the draft of the bill—which is but a normal process and usual occurrence in the deliberations of legislative proposals pending in Congress.

Extent of amendments to be introduced

On a final note, this brings us to the issue raised about the extent of the changes and adjustments that may be done and effected by Congress in its attempt to address important issues and concerns and potential problem areas brought to light in the course of the congressional hearings and discussions.

While it is a settled principle that Congress has the plenary legislative power, this might not sit well with the proponents of the draft bill considering the parties’ mutual commitments under the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, “to faithfully abide by, honor, respect, implement, and entrench the agreements, and nurture the integrity of the whole peace process.”

This is still a question that remains to be unanswered, but

to end, please rest assured that we, your elected representatives in Congress, are committed to faithfully and reasonably comply with our share of the duties as institutional partner of the Philippine Government. And as Chairman of the Local Government Committee in the Senate, I assure our Muslim brothers and sisters and the entire Filipino people that I will exert my best effort and highest diligence in seeing this proposal through in the Senate.

In behalf of the Senate, may I extend our assurance that we will do our share in this important task of nation-building and timely come up with the effective and responsive course of action needed by our People and our country. I assure the proponents and the Filipino people of our sincerity and of the genuineness of our intentions to finally secure long-lasting peace in Mindanao and instill sense of hope and freedom among our brothers and sisters in Muslim Mindanao, to finally dispel the notion that we merely pay lip service to our promises of peace agreements for which our Government had been criticized all these long years.

Hanggang dito na lamang po!

Maraming salamat po!

Makakaasa po ang lahat na hangad namin

sa Kongreso, lalo na sa Senado, ang kapayapaan at pagkakaisa ng ating mga kababayan sa Mindanao!

Assalamualaikum!

Muli po, magandang hapon sa inyong lahat!

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