Transcript: Sen. Bongbong’s opening statement at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) Forum

Distinguished speakers who are here this morning, ladies and gentlemen of FOCAP, good morning.

I’m expected here today to speak on the progress of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in view of the events we have been witnessing in the past weeks and months, and I think the best way to do that is to got through the timeline of what transpired.

Since late September when the President officially transmitted to Congress the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law, we have been going through the legislative process and we have been conducting hearings in different places—mostly in the South.

And we had started by having a briefing from OPAP and went to our hearings down South. And eventually we were expecting to conduct final hearings last Feb. 4th and 5th in Jolo and Zamboanga.

So the process was well on its way. We had the work towards the timetable, working back, because the hard deadline that was given us really was the election of the Bangsamoro government officials which was conceived to be held together with the national and local elections of May 2016. And that led us, working backward, led us to the date that we needed to finish the drafting and the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law by the end of this session, which ends on March 20th.

It was not an easy process because there were many administrative, political details that needed to be worked out. The basic concept and the basic elements of the power sharing between the national government and the Bangsamoro government took center stage in all our discussions. And this was not defined in detail in the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law. And that’s why it was left to us legislators to make it very clear and to map out the mechanism by which this power sharing is going to take place.

It was not a simple task because there were many opinions on how this should work. We of course consulted with many of those who have long experience in the peace process not only with the MILF but also with the MNLF, all the way back to the 70’s.

And so these processes was on-going, we had to figure out the power sharing agreement between the national government and the Bangsamoro government; we had to figure out the administration—there is some administrative problems because there were some areas which were included which were non-contiguous to the Bangsamoro core territory. And this administrative problems were slowly beginning to take shape.

However the world of the Bangsamoro Basic Law changed in January 25, when we started to receive reports that there had been a major firefight in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. And eventually it turned out that 44 of our PNP-SAF troopers were killed and an undetermined number of MILF were also casualties, there were also some civilian casualties.

It was my immediate instinct to suspend all hearings on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and I did that early Monday morning. And the reason that I did this was very simple: the whole point in the peace process and the Bangsamoro Basic Law was to bring peace to Muslim Mindanao, to bring true and lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao. So clearly the mechanisms that we had put in place after the signing of the Framework Agreement between the MILF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, had not performed the function—because they were there precisely to avoid this type of incident, and therefore we had to stop and examine what exactly happened in Mamasapano. And to try and learn the lessons from that so as to strengthen those mechanisms so that this would never happen again.

And that’s where we are now. Both houses have suspended the hearings on Bangsamoro Basic Law and we are in the process now of ferreting out the truth as to what really happened, and what went wrong, and what we are going to do to fix it.

The suspension of the hearings and the suspension of the legislative process of the Bangsamoro Basic Law is not a signal that we are giving up on the peace process. Quite the contrary.

What the Mamasapano incident makes very very clear is that a peace has to be found for Muslim Mindanao and we must work much harder to find that peace. So what are we doing now. We cannot just sit back and wait for the results of the board of inquiry that is being conducted by different entities. As of my last count there are nine entities conducting investigations on different facets of the Mamasapano incident. And we are in the process now of forming the Truth Commission which in my view should perform the function of collating, collecting and collating all the data that is gathered in the different entities that are conducting investigations and to come up with an overall view and an overall conclusion as to what really happened in Mamasapano.

But we cannot sit back and just wait— because that will take a little time. The police report is only half-way done, there are investigations by the Ombudsman’s Office, by the CHR, by the DOJ, the NBI, by both Houses of Congress. And we cannot, although this is important, we cannot proceed in terms of the legislative process until those facts are known. And I think people had been watching in the last two days we had been conducting hearings on that specific subject in the Senate. Today the House of Representatives conduct their equivalent hearings in Congress.

So what do we do now? What has happened here and how do we respond? Well the effects of the Mamasapano incident is very very clear. We have lost the confidence of the people—not necessarily in the individuals that are involved—but certainly in the peace process. And that is something that we must rectify. We are committed to the peace process. We are committed to finding peace in Muslim Mindanao. And therefore we must put it back on track.

And how do we do that. Again we still have to wait for the results of the inquiries that are being made and then to finally use those facts and the actions of the different parties involved—to learn the lessons so as to make the Bangsamoro Basic Law a better, more robust, and more effective law in bringing peace to Muslim Mindanao.

But in the meantime, unless we restore the faith of the people in the peace process—because we have heard, I’m sure you have all heard one end of the spectrum has been expressed by our former President, now Mayor of Manila Erap Estrada who says all out war. This was his response in his time when he was President.

But this again will bring us back to war, which is precisely what we are trying to avoid. Because we are committed to the peace process, how do we get it back on track? I have made several suggestions to both the government and the MILF to have some confidence building measures, to return that confidence and that trust that we seem to have lost or seems to have waned since the Mamasapano incident. It cuts both ways: the government has to explain precisely what happened, and what went wrong? Prescisely, who was involved, who was accountable, and how do we make it right?

We have proposed for the MILF side some specific measures, the first thing is something which I though was relatively simple, which is the return of the arms and the equipment and the personal effects of the killed policemen. Yesterday we heard from the representative of the MILF that they will do so. But again the lapse of 15 days was rather long and a bit disappointing. And again, it became the subject of further criticism of the peace process.

It did not help of course that Chairman Iqbal chose not to attend our hearings. And again, these small gestures of good faith are actually very important. And I hope he would take a more active role in these hearings and in these investigations.

The other element that I think would be very very important in moving this peace process forward, would be the explanation of the MILF as to what is the true nature of their relationship—between the MILF and the BIFF. This is important because BIFF has already declared that they do not believe in the peace process and that they will carry on fighting the government. And furthermore, and as an added development, the BIFF has aligned itself with the Islamic State—ISIS. And that is a worrisome development because as we—I’m sure as we all know—the ISIS is making havoc in the Middle East and we do not want that kind of conflict, not only in Southern Philippines but anywhere in the Philippines. So that is a very important aspect of it.

Secondly, the MILF can show again good faith to the people by helping in serving these warrants of arrest for, outstanding warrants of arrest—well, we heard about Usman who was the other target of the SAF in Mamasapano, but also there are other identififed terrorists who are well known and are thought to be being sheltered by BIFF or the MILF—again that is not clear and that is why we need more clarity on that subject.

Those kind of things I think will help in bringing the trust back. But how do we move the process forward? When the facts have come in as to what happened in Mamasapano, when we start to move the process, when we start up the legislative process again, how do we make it better?

And my view is that we have to take a different perspective on the issue. We have pinned our hope on the BBL as bringing peace to Muslim Mindanao. It would seem that now—the lesson that we learned is that it may not be sufficient, that maybe there are elements that we have to examine, maybe there are other parties that we have to bring into the process. And I think that all our hopes were dashed, that the BBL in fact would not be sufficient. Because we were hoping that this is going to be it. We were trying to make the BBL perfect so that again we would finally get that true and lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao.

And I think when I say that we have to take not only one step but several steps back from the process and look exactly what it is that’s going to be needed to bring peace to Muslim Mindanao. And I think we can take examples from the other agreements that have been signed. In the past in the 70’s with the MNLF, in the 90s with the MNLF again, and how these other agreements, how effective they were. The Tripoli Agreement did not only give autonomy and self-determination to the Muslim communities in Mindanao but also a very thorough and very extensive development, economic development plan for Muslim Mindanao. And that is I think a key element that we may have overlooked in trying to pass the BBL.

I think that we have to look…the reason for cessation is very simple: that first of all there’s a difference in culture, there’s a difference in language, in history, even in law between the Muslim communities and the rest of the Philippines. And that has to be immediately recognized. But there is also a feeling by our Muslim brothers that they are underrepresented in Manila and that they are under-developed as opposed to the rest of the country. And this is a valid concern on their part, and that is something that I think we must address. Because I think if the economy in Muslim Mindanao is strong and is thriving and people find a way forward, and that they find an alternative to taking up arms, and that their lives are complete, their lives are full, they feel that the government is providing the services that they required and that this will immediately be a very strong determinant as to whether we’ll have that true and lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao.

So that is I believe the way forward. There are many many details which need to be attended to still. But I believe that now is the time—it is a big chance for us to examine what are the causes, and what were the partial solutions that we have found in the past that we can again apply in the state that we are in in the peace process.

This is for me a continuing process, and that we must never forget despite the fact that emotions are running high—understandably so—we must never forget that the peace process must continue; that we must continue to strive to find a true and lasting peace.

Our economic managers here have explained how the economy of the Philippines is doing. And I think it must be felt by our Muslim brothers that they are part of that growth, they are part of that economic success. And until we do that, then they will always feel that they are somehow separate from the body politic of the Republic of the Philippines.

I think that right now what we are hoping to do is to try to institute those confidence building measures, get the facts as to what happened in Mamasapano, study them very well, and see what we can do better. Why did this coordination between the military and the police and the MILF—why did it in fact not work? It simply did not work because there was this encounter and so many people were killed on both sides of the conflict. This is what I envision.

Now the timetable that we had originally been working to was to finish by March 20. I had been able to give assurances that we will finish it by March 20. But unfortunately, with these events I do not know when in fact we can return to the legislative process and get it going again. I hope that….we cannot hurry the process of fact finding because we have to get the complete picture. And we cannot get a partial picture because that wont be as useful for us in trying to craft a law that will in fact bring peace to Muslim Mindanao.

I suppose we have to counsel patience and let the high emotions that we are all feeling come down a little bit, and the rhetoric must come down a little bid and we must now again take those steps back and take a larger perspective on the problem and try and see what those solutions are. I suggested that not only with political solution, there must be also an economic aspect to that solution. We must also try to engage all of the stake holders, all of the armed groups. And if they are in fact, if they have in fact decided that they do not believe in the peace process then they must be isolated and marginalized. And so how we are going to do that is something we have to figure out yet. And it was never a part of the original concept of the BBL but maybe the time has come that we include it.

So that’s where we stand right now and I hope that in the next few weeks that this situation will become clear as the facts surrounding the Mamasapano become clearer and become known. And I am confident that when that happens we can move the process forward and continue this striving for peace for our Muslim brothers in Mindanao.

Thank you and good morning.

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