Philippine Lawmakers Approve Proposed Muslim Autonomy Legislation

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato City, Philippines
2018-05-31
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180531-PH-MILF-1000.jpg Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters patrol a village in Tangkal, a predominantly Muslim town in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Norte, May 28, 2018.
Richel Umel/BenarNews

Both houses of the Philippine Congress have passed a proposed law that will eventually allow self-rule for Muslims in the southern Mindanao region, but the chambers have come under criticism for allegedly watering-down certain provisions of the legislation.

President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier certified as urgent the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which, his office said, he wanted to sign into law by July before delivering his annual State of the Nation address.

On Thursday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Thursday the BBL was “absolutely indispensable in the search for peace” in Mindanao, a mineral-rich region that has remained largely impoverished because of years of Muslim separatist insurgency.

“We are pleased that both houses of Congress agreed to come up with a final version of the bill during the break,” Roque said in a statement, adding that both houses would now have to fine-tune the document in a bicameral conference committee before submitting the final version for Duterte to sign.

Juan Miguel Zubiri, the Senate majority’s floor leader, said he was confident that the version it passed on Thursday complied with the country’s constitution and could withstand a judicial challenge at the Supreme Court. The House passed the proposed legislation a day earlier.

“We survived walking on a tightrope, balancing the search for peace, right to self-determination, governance and democracy and. And, we did it crossing party lines,” Zubiri said.

“Even at this early stage, the BBL is a legacy for all the efforts to bring about peace and progress in lands which most experienced poverty, inequity and war in the Philippines,” he said, adding he believed that “erstwhile rebels” would finally lay down their arms once the measure was signed into law.

But Mohagher Iqbal, the chief peace negotiator for the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and chairman of a special transition commission which struck an agreement with the Philippine government on the Bangsamoro Basic Law in 2014, told BenarNews that the final Senate bill was “quite far from our version.”

“I cannot give a specific description on that because I don’t want to preempt what will happen in the legislative track in the Senate, but I am hoping that, at the end of the day, it will be passed and, hopefully, capture the essence of the agreement of the parties,” he said.

‘Watered-down ghost’

The BBL was envisioned to outline the basic structure of a proposed autonomy in Mindanao. Under the deal, the government had promised to pass the BBL, which would spell out the boundaries of the autonomous rule.

When MILF agreed to the BBL through peace talks with the government of then-President Benigno Aquino, the 12,000-strong rebel group dropped its bid for independence in Mindanao in exchange for expanded autonomy.

But after the deal was struck four years ago, the proposed law never made it through the congress dominated largely by Christians, who were fearful that giving the MILF autonomy and power could lead to trouble.

Christian legislators had questioned certain provisions, particularly one that gave a larger autonomous area in the south where the MILF could have established their own police and military forces, as well as the right to control wealth derived from natural resources.

Among the crucial provisions that the senators deleted in the bill they passed on Thursday was one that gave the “reserved powers” for the administrators of the envisioned autonomous region, Drilon said.

A copy of the proposed legislation, which was seen by BenarNews, shows that much of the powers that the autonomous government had been pushing for, including those concerning land management, public utilities and basic regulatory powers, such as those related to the rights of indigenous groups, have been stripped.

Suara Bangsamoro, a Muslim rights group, accused the national government of working to pass “a mangled and watered-down ghost” of the BBL.

“The BBL version passed by Congress is not going to answer the Moro (Muslim) problem,” the group’s head, Jerome Succor Aba, told reporters.

“We will forever continue to be vigilant in our fight for justice, right to self-determination and genuine autonomy,” he said, accusing the government of working to facilitate the entry of “foreign corporations under the guise of bringing development” in Muslim areas.

The BBL was expected to forge peace in the country’s Muslim-majority areas in the south, ending almost 50 years of armed conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

In January 2015, MILF guerrillas killed 44 police officers during a clash with members of a police commando unit hunting down a wanted Malaysian terrorist in the Maguindanao town of Mamasapano.

Duterte has warned that failure to pass the BBL could spur Muslim guerrillas to declare war again.

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