As with many other things involving Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, there was no shortage of drama following the delivery of his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week. Part of that concerned the historic Bangsamoro Organic Law, better known by its previous name, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), designed to move the Philippines closer to working out an arrangement to provide for self-determination of Muslims in the southern part of the country.
The expected signing of the BBL by Duterte almost never happened at all, with him threatening to walk out as House squabbles turned into a colorful coup and the House Speaker was replaced. But Duterte finally inked the bill days later. Though it marks a significant step forward for the management of this issue under Duterte’s tenure, there are no shortage of challenges ahead for him on this front as well.
At the general level, the BBL is designed to craft an arrangement that improves on the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) of 1989, giving the region far more autonomy. Full reformation has been a long time coming since former president Benigno Aquino III called the ARMM a ‘failed experiment’ back in 2011. Malacañang at the time accused regional leaders of buying votes, insisting that the then-current model was incapable of providing the self-determination advocated for by Muslim Filipinos in the south.
The bill promises autonomy for the Muslim-majority region, and the reforms are sweeping, including the country’s first parliamentary form with a chief minister overseeing 80 representatives. The new form will also address some major issues with the ARMM – including the need to address the House to secure funds. The BBL will guarantee funding which can be spent at the discretion of the parliament, and dditional funding has been guaranteed for the first five years to rehabilitate war-torn areas.
Details still remain to be worked out. For instance, what regions exactly will constitute the autonomous region will be decided by plebiscite before the end of the year, though it is likely to extend beyond the current ARMM borders of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces. This will exacerbate a key issue during negotiations over which political entity will control strategic areas such as the Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf.
Other specifics also need to be addressed, from qualms over wording to issues such as energy distribution. And the history of this issue suggests that one ought to be cautious about dismissing the possibility that seemingly minor issues or unforeseen circumstances could get in the way of advanced. Voters, particularly outside of Mindanao, appear to have mixed feelings on the bill as well, with SWS polling conducted in June showed 40 percent of voters are undecided about the bill.
But for Duterte, he has achieved something his predecessor never could. Reform on this front had stalked the Aquino presidency. “The biggest failing is the failure to pass the BBL in an acceptable form. What’s the reason for this? The minority is against the BBL in its present form and we have tried to introduce amendments. We have spoken long and well regarding different aspects of the BBL but they didn’t listen,” then House Minority leader Ronaldo Zamora said in 2015. Aquino promised BBL would be passed within the remaining two years of his term but failed to deliver after two different versions of the bill were bogged down in the House and Senate.
To his credit, Aquino had met with the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, a body representing all major religions in the region with leaders selected by the government and MILF. Still, these meetings ended with little concrete reform and the BBL was kicked down the road for the next president.
Coming from Mindanao, Duterte made the BBL a core plank of his election campaign. His candidacy was endorsed by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on grounds that he, as long term mayor of Davao City, best understood the needs of the Moro people. This reputation has afforded him far more goodwill among key Mindanao groups than Aquino enjoyed and helped assuage fears that the bill would continue to be seen as ‘unfair’ to Mindanao. Key to this was Duterte’s constant reiteration that the bill must encompass all Moro groups, not just the Bangamoro peoples.
Last year, as a violent insurgency in Marawi City erupted, Duterte upped the pressure on Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and MNLF, saying that scrapping between the two groups would only further delay the legislation. By November, he had met with the MILF’s Nur Misuari and a draft bill was awaiting the House. In a symbolic gesture earlier this year, the Senate held a public consultation on the draft in Marawi City in January.
Now, nearly six months later, after a dramatic week in Manila the House has ratified the legislation. Fresh Speaker of the House and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made passing the bill her first priority after winning a power struggle with former speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, himself also from Mindanao, ahead of Duterte’s State of the Nation Address on Monday.
“I’d like to talk to Nur so that we can have it by the end of the year,” Duterte said in Davao city on Thursday. He promised the MILF leader that autonomy is on the way, but says he can wait until the implementation of federalism “if he trusts me.”
Cynics could read Duterte’s enthusiasm for BBL as part of his larger crusade for instituting federalism. A move towards federalism is deeply unpopular, with Pulse Asia polling in June showing that 67 percent of voters are against change. Duterte has shaken off concerns about changes to the 1987 Constitution, including the introduction of federalism, using his State of the Nation Address to deploy his favored argument – federalism will close inequality gaps.
“I am confident that the Filipino people will stand behind us as we introduce this new fundamental law that will not only strengthen our democratic institutions, but will also create an environment where every Filipino – regardless of social status, religion, or ideology – will have an equal opportunity to grow and create a future that he or she can proudly bequeath to the succeeding generations,” he said during the address.