Philippine legislators who toured the war-ravaged southern city of Marawi are calling for prompt passage of a proposed law giving Muslims in the country’s south expanded autonomy.
“I did not imagine the extent of the damage,” Sen. Cynthia Villar, a member of the Senate subcommittee working on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), said during a weekend visit to Marawi.
She said the experience had moved her to vote for the proposed BBL bill before Congress goes on recess in late March. “We have to pass a relevant BBL law to prevent another Marawi from happening,” she said.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was a key feature of a 2014 peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main Muslim insurgent force that dropped its bid for independence in exchange for expanded autonomy.
It outlines the basic structure of the proposed autonomy in Mindanao, the country’s mineral-rich southern third that has been locked in violence for much of the past four decades.
But BBL has failed to pass Congress to date as lawmakers in both chambers have expressed fear that handing greater power to minority Muslims could lead to trouble. A clash that killed 44 special action force police in MILF territory in 2015 added to the apprehension.
Since then, the MILF regained some measure of trust after helping the military go after the remnants of a militant group inspired by the Islamic State (IS) that took control of Marawi for five months ending in October.
The 12,000-member MILF formed a special group of commandos to help the military track those who attacked Marawi. It also warned that many younger Muslims could be enticed by IS if the promised law is not passed.
Sen. Joseph Ejercito said he was confident a BBL bill submitted by a transition council would muster enough votes in the Senate. Without elaborating, he said the only obstacles for the passage were some “key constitutional questions” he expected senators would ask before casting their votes.
“This might be the one instrument that could give lasting peace to Mindanao,” Ejercito said.
A Senate subcommittee is working to consolidate four pending BBL bills while a subcommittee in the House is consolidating four similar bills.
The Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri held public hearings Friday in Marawi. Similar hearings were held in southern Cotabato City, as well as in the MILF’s administrative headquarters in Camp Darapanan in nearby Sultan Kudarat town.
The senators were given a tour of Marawi’s main battle area, where they saw the destruction wrought by the five-month fight between government troops and IS-linked militants.
The Marawi battle, the most intense military campaign the IS has supported outside Syria and Iraq, killed almost 1,200 people, including some 930 militants, 165 soldiers and police and dozens of civilians.
“We must put a stop to violent extremism,” Zubiri said. “These people are saying, ‘look, the peace process has been ignored, what was promised to them were not fulfilled by government.’ That’s why we should try to prevent this.”
Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman and head of the transition council, said the former guerrillas were confident the senators would deliver on their promise.
Jaafar said President Rodrigo Duterte has enough clout to persuade the Senate and House of Representatives to vote for the bill. The House is controlled by allies of Duterte.
“We have to trust them,” Jaafar said.
What happened in Marawi “was caused not because Muslims do not like Christians,” Jaafar said. “What happened in Marawi City is what we are going to address through the Bangsamoro Basic Law.”
He emphasized that the BBL was a political solution to the decades-old Muslim struggle, which he said could only be solved through a political solution.
In November, Duterte promised to press Congress to correct what he said were historical injustices and pass the autonomy law to bring real peace to the South.