Muslim indigenous peoples or Moros have organised themselves and fought in a war that has killed 120,000 and displaced 3.25 million people over the last four decades. The Philippine government needs the resources of Moro lands. The MILF has conceded this in agreeing to pursue autonomy under the framework of the Philippine Constitution. In the last two years, the peace talks have reached a point where government troops and the MILF are conducting joint operations against other armed groups in Mindanao.
But the MILF is after something else, a law that enables them to determine their own future. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) implements the signed peace agreements by building a Bangsamoro ministerial government to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The theory is that a self-governing Bangsamoro given more economic and political powers can uplift the Philippines’ poorest region. Endorsed by the President in September 2014, the BBL was expected to pass the bicameral legislature under the current Aquino administration.
But Aquino himself authorised Oplan Exodus in January 2015, an operation to pursue an alleged terrorist with a US$5 million bounty on his head in Mamasapano, without coordinating with the MILF. The result was the killing of 44 elite police, 17 MILF members, five civilians and the death of the BBL in Congress.
The Mamasapano clash demonstrated how the government talks peace with the MILF, but does not fully trust them as partners in Mindanao. Partly due to unethical media coverage, the dominant public discourses after Mamasapano betray a lack of concern among politicians and the general public about finding a lasting resolution to the conflict in Mindanao, and mirror the Islamophobia often present in global anti-terror campaigns. Perhaps one silver lining of the crossfire in Mamasapano might be renewed public interest in the BBL and its contents.
When Congress resumed BBL deliberations, it was in the form of the Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR). A House of Representatives ad-hoc committee voted 50–17 in favour of the BLBAR in May 2015. The Senate, on the other hand, was in no hurry. The Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes reported that the BBL requires substantial revision to withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, delaying proceedings until it was too late. Senators who suspect that the BBL is unconstitutional include Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Grace Poe, who both ran for president in this week’s election, as well as Allan Peter Cayetano, Chiz Escudero and Bongbong Marcos, who are contenders for vice president.
Still, the binding peace agreements signed by the government and the MILF compel the next Congress to take up BBL and determine its form. Not just any law will do. Peace advocates and the MILF have criticised the current BLBAR as not being compliant with existing peace agreements. In the current version, the powers of the Bangsamoro entity are weakened by the presence of national government institutions. BLBAR grants the Bangsamoro government limited autonomy, only slightly besting the ARMM in sharing powers with the national government.
The most significant points of the BBL are provisions for economic policies based on social justice and sustainable development (Article XIII), which were pared down in the last version. So far, land reform and creation of new industries are still in the BLBAR. But if Philippine laws and contracts such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade prevail in the Bangsamoro, these provisions will either cause contradictions in Philippine law or will be relegated to mere rhetoric.
If provisions for social justice and sustainable development are only rhetorically endorsed, this will be a disservice to the struggle of the Moro peoples. A rhetorical BBL will not solve the conflict in Mindanao, and will frustrate the Moro people’s hopes for peace and development in their remaining ancestral domains.
At most, a symbolic BBL will reconfigure the power holders in the Bangsamoro while reinforcing Moro elite rule. At worse, it will fuel the recruitment drives of armed groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf Group. The MNLF’s renewed vigour and Abu Sayyaf’s escalated extremism suggest that the BBL alone will not stop violence in Mindanao.
The push to end the conflict in Mindanao must go beyond the BBL in the next Congress. The Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) recommends ‘dealing with the past’ as a joint endeavour of the national government and the Bangsamoro authorities and institutions. Established by the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the TJRC was mandated to study and recommend steps towards reconciliation in Mindanao. Their thorough 2016 report demonstrates that with or without the BBL, historical injustices in the Bangsamoro, including land dispossession, serious human rights violations and impunity, must be addressed to provide the necessary conditions for peace in the southern Philippines.
Teresa Jopson is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.