MORO ISLAMIC Liberation Front (MILF) Chairperson Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, speaking at the 1st Bangsamoro Assembly on Nov. 27, 2017 held in Maguindanao, waxed sentimental on the years of armed struggle, of days lived in remote areas of Mindanao fighting for deeply-rooted grievances that go as far as five centuries.

“We cannot help but remember the vivid memories of the past — youthful memories spent not in the cafes of the metropolis but in the ever-changing rugged fields, mountains and marshlands,” Mr. Ebrahim said.

“We are proud heirs to a history of freedom and of the zealous struggle of our forebears for liberty, justice and peace for centuries amidst the onslaught of colonialism and conquest,” he continued.

The remembrance, however, was not meant to incite hostility at the event, a multi-stakeholder gathering prescribed under President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s Executive Order No. 8 expanding the composition of the Bangasamoro Transition Commission (BTC) to include representatives from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), indigenous peoples (IP), and Christian settlers.

Rather, Mr. Ebrahim was putting into perspective the MILF’s resolve to pursue the peace process alongside Mindanao’s diverse communities and rally a united front for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

“I say, let us work and contribute in determining our future with security and succor, a future of peace and plenty that harnesses the potentials of our people whose new skills and talents will be needed for a new age and era in the Bangsamoro. While we shall remain faithful and grateful to our brothers and sisters in struggle, let us tap into the vital energy of our youth and women, whose skills and enthusiasm in pursuing the Bangsamoro dream have kept my confidence in a more secure and certain future for our people,” Mr. Ebrahim said.

That future will largely be determined by the revised BBL proposal, which, for the second time around, lies in the hands of Congress.

The Senate and the House of Representatives, whose leaders are both from Mindanao and are allied with the administration, demurred from the President’s call during the Bangsamoro Assembly to hold a special session at the end of last year to tackle the BBL.

However, legislators in both chambers vowed that the proposal will be among the top priorities at the beginning of 2018.

None among the expanded circle of Bangsamoro stakeholders, over the past year, has publicly made threats of returning to arms if the BBL is not passed.

But Mr. Duterte himself has warned that a protracted legislative action, or worse another congressional bypass, would spell “trouble.”

“If we do not act on it expeditiously, I think that we are headed for a trouble. We must continue to talk and I will urge Congress to fast-track it because they (Bangsamoro stakeholders) are getting impatient,” Mr. Duterte said in a press conference in Davao City on Oct. 29, just before leaving for an official visit to Japan — a trip planned earlier in the year but was postponed in view of the Marawi City crisis.

“And I told them of the wages of how to negotiate peace. Sabi ko, ‘Sandali lang (I told them, just wait a bit), but we (government) will comply on our side what we have promised… that is a commitment eh. Not even a promise, but a commitment to the Moro people,” he added.

Dr. Aboulkhair S. Tarason, chairperson Basilan Ulama Supreme Council and the Basilan Inter-faith Council of Leaders, said in a phone interview, “We are in full support for the passage of the BBL as it will give fruition to the quest for peace of the Moro people.”

One expansion made in the new BBL draft, submitted to Mr. Duterte on July 17 and transmitted to Congress on Aug. 7, is the addition of seats in the council of leaders and sectoral representatives for the youth, traditional leaders, and the ulama, or those considered as scholars or learned of Islam. There are also seats allocated for IPs, settler communities, and women.

BTC Chairperson Ghazali Jaafar, a top MILF official who headed the group’s peace negotiating panel from 1996-1997, explained that the BBL is about resolving the very old “Bangsamoro Question” and addressing a new threat, the emergence of violent extremism.

“Summing up all the number of years since 1521, it means that the Bangsamoro Question has been present for almost 500 years. Parallel to this is the rise and fall cycle of peace negotiations… Consequently, the trust of some Bangsamoro groups on the peace process faded away. These groups started to become radicalized and developed the mindset that the only solution to the Bangsamoro issue is through the use of force,” Mr. Jaafar said in a speech at the Dec. 4, 2017 forum “Way Forward: Beyond Peace in Mindanao” organized by the  Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Ateneo de Manila University.

“They started gathering strength even to the point of disregarding the sources and the means just to develop their fire-fight capability. Because of frustration, they do not even mind if the source of the support they receive are from what others refer to as extremists or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria),” said Mr. Jaafar, noting that these local armed groups “in a strict sense, are not ISIS themselves.”

“They are local armed groups that have been organized with the objective of resolving the Bangsamoro Question,” he added.

Conflict Alert, the monitoring system developed by International Alert Philippines, has noted “the growing strength of the local extremists” since 2015.

In its 2017 Report titled Guns, Drugs, and Extremism: Bangsamoro’s New Wars, launched Nov. 29, Conflict Alert said “Rebellion-related violence increased by 19% from 144 incidents in 2015 to 171 incidents in 2016.”

More than half of these incidents were in Maguindanao, accounting for 96 in 2016, up from 71 the previous year.

The province is a known lair of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, also referred to as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, a group that broke away from the MILF at the height of the peace negotiations with the government, and has since pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Conflict Alert, in it’s 2016 Report, also noted “the growing strength of the Maute Group, which is at the core of Dawlah Islamiya.”

It said that “judging by the number of conflict deaths (86) from only six incidents involving the Maute Group that were monitored at that time, it demonstrated it had the resources and capacity to launch large-scale and deadly attacks.”

Their rampage in Marawi last year showed just that — a five-month long battle against government forces that left in its wake deaths, diaspora, and harrowing destruction in what is recognized as an “Islamic City”, the only one in the country.

Mr. Ebrahim calls these groups the “new enemies”, whom he described as followers of a “perverted ideology devoid of a national agenda… without regard to the rules of war and the welfare of the people.”

Mr. Duterte, unlike his stance on the communist movement, wants a comprehensive, inclusive and firm end to the Bangsamoro struggle through the BBL.

“So let us work on the historical issues. Land, the social injustices that were committed since then,” he said at the Nov. 27 assembly, even as he hinted on what he anticipates to be a battle in Congress.

“Alam ko realist kayo (I know you are realists),” he told the crowd.

“If it’s (BBL provisions) not in consonance… then we work it out, but at least Congress and the Filipino people should be given a day to hear you out on what we intend to do… I will impress upon them that you have to devote even one day or two days. Hear them out, hear us from Mindanao,” he said.

Professor Ali T. Yacub, Al-Hj, president of the Golden Crescent Consortium of Peace Builders and Affiliates, said the BBL is the “hard work of the Moro people” that should not be delayed in consideration of the proposal to shift to federalism.

Another Muslim leader, Sheikh Zayd Ocfemia, president of the Assunah Foundation and a member of the Ulama Council for Zamboanga Peninsula, expressed the same sentiment, saying: “Federalism takes a longer time before it will pass, while the BBL it’s already there.”

The bottomline, Mr. Duterte said, is to find a meeting point for two factors relating to the Bangsamoro Question: “Correct the injustice committed against the Moro people and all of the lumads (IPs) here. Second is to preserve the Republic… there has to be a condition that is for all.” — Marifi S. Jara, Arjay L.  Balinbin, Rosemarie A. Zamora, Andrea Louise E. San Juan, and Albert F. Arcilla