The 16th Congress of the Philippines adjourned its sessions without approving the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), thereby once again stymying the creation of a stronger autonomous region in the Muslim-dominated provinces of southern Philippines and threatening to reignite an insurgency that has raged for decades.
The passage of the BBL is part of the comprehensive peace agreement signed between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014. Since the 1970s, the MILF has been waging an armed struggle for self-determination, although it agreed to pursue this political demand by establishing an autonomous region when it entered into a peace negotiation with the Philippine government 17 years ago.
The BBL would have boosted the peace process and expedited the decommissioning of MILF weapons. Aside from transforming conflict areas into zones of peace and progress, the creation of a Bangsamoro entity would have enabled the Philippine military to focus on other security matters, like beefing up the country’s external defense in light of the current maritime dispute with China.
The government peace adviser, Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles, emphasized the need to advance the Bangsamoro peace process in order to discourage the rise of extremist groups in the country.
“The success of the Bangsamoro peace process can help us arrest the spread of extremism around the globe by showing clearly that an Islamic movement can address its grievances and pursue its interests through a legitimate mode of democratic political engagement while still remaining within the country’s territorial integrity and constitutional framework, and without losing their culture and identity,” she said a few weeks ago.
Because of the failure of Congress to pass the BBL, this piece of legislation has to be refiled when the new government assumes power in July. However, it is no guarantee that it will be supported by the new president. The presidential election is scheduled on May 9 but the administration’s candidate, Mar Roxas, is not doing well in surveys relative to his opponents.
Finalizing a peace deal with the MILF is supposed to be one of the legacies of the incumbent government of Benigno Aquino III. The peace process was moving right on track but it was stalled when a bungled anti-terror operation led to the death of 44 policemen in MILF territory last January 2015. Opponents of the BBL accused the MILF of treachery and succeeded in suspending deliberations on the BBL.
When Congress adjourned this week in preparation for the election campaign period, plenary debates on the BBL were not yet finished.
The government’s peace negotiator, Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, blamed legislators for not prioritizing the BBL.
“The sheer indifference and chronic absenteeism of majority of the legislators manifested in the lack of quorum almost on a daily basis in the House of Representatives, and the prolonged and repetitive interpellation of oppositors ate up the remaining sessions,” she said in a statement.
For its part, the MILF absolved Aquino for the non-passage of the BBL, but it criticized the House Speaker for allowing anti-BBL legislators to block the bill.
“The man who was supposed to be the defender of the BBL in the Lower House was the one causing so much confusion, short of an open defiance. Why did the leadership in the House allow the enemies of the BBL to filibuster its passage?”
But the MILF should also ask Aquino why he approved an anti-terror operation without coordinating with the MILF. Also, why did he authorize a suspended police officer to assume a role in the operation? It was this incident – which anti-BBL politicians blamed on the MILF – that provoked the opposition to step up their propaganda efforts against the proposed law.
Nevertheless, it is important that the MILF assured the public that it remains committed to the peace process. It acknowledged that some extremist groups might take advantage of the situation to derail the peace deal but it also declared its readiness to consolidate its ranks and launch more initiatives to restore confidence in the peace agreement.
For those who are worried about the disintegration of the peace process, it is also comforting for them to hear the government peace panel clarifying that the framework of the peace agreement remains in effect. It means peace initiatives in the southern part of the country will continue despite the BBL debacle.
But is this enough to prevent the sudden collapse of confidence in the peace deal?
Since Congress only adjourned on February 3, the next few days are crucial to determine the impact of the non-passage of the BBL in both the MILF-controlled territories and areas where other armed militant groups are operating.
The critical forces of civil society must also endeavor to exact accountability from the Aquino government. After all, billions of pesos were spent to conclude a peace deal with the MILF.
As for the peace constituency, the lesson here is that a large segment of the population is still ignorant of the Moro struggle for self-determination. Regardless of whoever replaces Aquino, a crucial task of the peace advocacy is to conduct massive education campaign about the history of the Moro people and their struggle for freedom and justice.