Two years into the Duterte administration, trepidations on the fate of the peace process continue. The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the political translation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed in 2014, hangs in the balance. This week, the Bicameral Committee starts deliberation on the Senate and House version of the BBL.
Among the contentious issues are (a) the fiscal autonomy of the autonomous government, in particular the conditions on the proposed Block Grant; (b) the powers of the autonomous government vis a vis the national government; (c) security matters like policing and decommissioning of armed MILF; (d) control of inland waters; and (e) areas that will be included in the plebiscite.
The BBL has been in a seesaw ride ever since it was crafted. The first time it was submitted to Congress, it was seriously derailed by the Mamasapano incident in January 2015. It failed to pass as a law. This 17th Congress, proponents are again pushing for its passage, but the federalism agenda by the administration looms in the background, threatening its derailment once again.
Yet, the President made a commitment — BBL will be passed first before federalism, easing the anxiety of BBL proponents.
But a week before the Bicameral Committee is set to discuss the Senate and House versions of the BBL, the Constitutional Commission passed the proposed Federal Constitution, creating once again worry that the BBL will be overshadowed by it.
Juxtaposed with the slow-climb of the BBL is the increasing threat of terrorism in the ARMM area, with the confrontation in Marawi as its most serious attempt. The Daulah Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (DIWM) alliance by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)-Basilan, Maute Group, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) must be regarded as a serious concern since it has facilitated the geographically and ethnically separate groups to work as one. The fact that the ISIS-inspired Daulah alliance roused these groups to transcend their primary layer of identity (Tausug, Maranaw, and Maguindanao) and work together to capture Marawi as their wilayat or controlled territory is a serious matter.
While the leadership of the Daulah alliance has been crippled with the death of Hapilon and the Maute brothers in October 2017, recent reports declared that a new leader has emerged.
Note that terrorist organizations’ areas of operation dangerously intersect with the areas populated by MILF and MNLF members, creating a fertile condition of cross-pollination of ideologies and grievance. The longer that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is derailed, the more it can fuel frustration, allowing terror groups to use it to radicalize dissent.
It is hence crucial for a CAB compliant BBL to be passed into law as proof that political settlement actually produces positive results, if only to mitigate the possibility of disgruntlement in the ranks of MILF and MNLF, and feed on the manipulation by and eventual recruitment of terrorist organizations.
PEACE TALKS WITH COMMUNIST REBELS
How about the peace process with the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/ National Democratic Front?
The negotiations with the CPP/ NPA/NDF have been an on-and-off arrangement. The government has been negotiating with the group for 31 years now. Most, if not all, of the five-member panel of the NDF negotiating team are in their late 70s to mid-80s and have been away from the country for decades. They no longer have control of the organization they represent. Indicators abound that the NPA local commands, especially the Northeast Mindanao area are operating on their own. The CPP/NPA/ NDF is no longer a cohesive, unified communist armed movement — the great splits by the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) in 1987, and the Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa–Pilipinas/Revolutionary Proletarian Army/Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPM-P/RPA-ABB) in 2000 has left the movement severely weakened; the Philippine military in fact asserts that the NPA has only about four thousand armed members to date.
Clearly it is no longer a force to reckon with; yet it must be noted that it still has ability to derail development and victimize communities through their “revolutionary tax” collections and subsequent punishment (e.g. destroying equipment) against those who are uncooperative.
In the 31 years of negotiation, peace agreement is nowhere near completion with the CPP/ NPA/ NDF. It is therefore valid to ask if negotiating with the Utrecht-based negotiators is the right approach. The local leadership of the NPA has been sending clear signals that it is them, not the NDF panel in Utrecht, who call the shots.
Instead of waiting for the local command(s) to formally declare a split from the party, it is necessary that they be recognized for what and who they really are. If the immediate objective of the government is to end armed violence that victimizes communities, local negotiations/ local peace dialogues should be seriously considered. Otherwise, the group might eventually splinter into smaller local armed groups that are dispersed in a number of villages, engaging in tactical alliances with criminal gangs and syndicates.
President Duterte has committed that his government will do everything in its power to pursue peace and political settlement.
While the peace agreement is not a “magic pill” that will deliver ‘peace,’ it remains to be one of the critical elements of the process. This writer is in full support of the Bangsamoro peace process and the passage of a CAB-compliant BBL; and is fully supportive of local peace negotiations vis a vis the CPP/NPA/NDF peace table, especially one that involves local communities affected by armed conflict in the forefront of negotiations.
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is Asst Professor of the Dept. of Political Science and Director of the Ateneo Initiative for Southeast Asian Studies.