The Death of the Bangsamoro Basic Law

The Death of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Written by Ephraim Aguilar and Toni Tiemsin for Photos by Sophia Balod and Che Pascual.

Co-written with Ephraim Aguilar

Just like that, the proposed legislation that promises peace in the South is dead.

The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) died in a war — not of guns, bombs and barbaric grounds — but a war within the hallowed, civilized halls of Congress. The very same fruit of two decades of grueling negotiations is seemingly rotting away right in front of our eyes. And for government chief peace negotiator Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer two things are to blame: “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.”

The legislative assembly had been busy the last few session days leading to the election break, cramming the passage of laws it deemed important. But the BBL was not part of the agenda. To give way for the 2016 national elections, the 16th Congress adjourned this week.

Lack of Political Will

Speaking before the 9th National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Congress in Baras, Rizal last February 2, Coronel-Ferrer lamented the apparent lack of political will among legislators. She says lawmakers, at the end of the day, are politicians who would have to swing to what’s popular to protect their electoral ambitions.

Coronel-Ferrer noted that there were 40 public hearings and 14 plenary deliberations in the lower chamber conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro. In the upper chamber, which is the Senate, there were 15 public hearings and 14 sessions of plenary interpellations on the BBL. “[All these] amounted to nothing, along with the millions of pesos of taxpayers’ money used up to finance these drawn-out proceedings,” Coronel-Ferrer said.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chief government negotiator for the BBL

The Commission’s Fault?

But if a lawmaker is to be believed, it was the Bangasamoro Transition Commission (BTC) that should be blamed. In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Zamboanga First District Rep. Celso Lobregat pointed fingers to BTC’s purported delays: “If you look at the process there was a five-month delay, from the time the BTC submitted the draft to the executive department up to the time it is submitted to Congress, it took April 2015 and submitted September 2015.”

The problem could indeed be institutional.

For one, the Commission which is a presidential creation is not perfect. It has undergone several transitions including the exit of its previous chief negotiator Marvic Leonen, now a Supreme Court Justice. Like any other group there were disagreements within the Commission itself especially during the drafting and revising of the actual content of the BBL before it reached Congress.

But the BTC nearly nailed a victory when it created the Bangsamoro Basic Law. This is already an achievement considering its beginnings were marked with trouble and bloodshed after the unconstitutional attempt of the Arroyo presidency to strike a Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain or the MOA-AD.

The seat of power in Basilan, Sulu. Photo courtesy: Che Gurrobat-Pascual of Backpacking Pilipinas.
The seat of power in Basilan, Sulu. Photo courtesy: Che Gurrobat-Pascual of Backpacking Pilipinas.


Hard work paid off for the Commission and negotiations on annexes after annexes of the framework came to fruition. On October 15, 2012, both the peace panels signed the preliminary deal Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). The event was so historic and crucial the secretary-general of the regional bloc Organization of Islamic Cooperation witnessed the event along with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

A little more than a year after, in November 2013, the Philippine press ecstatically covered President Aquino’s historic visit in an MILF territory in Maguindanao dubbed the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, the qualifier an Arabic-Bahasa-Melayu derivative meaning “blessing, prosperity or peace.”

Hopes were high that indeed a Sajahatra Bangsamoro will be given a chance to replace the nearly three-decade-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a creation of President Cory Aquino now branded by the second Aquino government as a “failed experiment.”

The game plan was a lesson learned from the MOA-AD experience. Though it was very risky, the strategy included the participation of Congress for it was inevitable not to. Be it an organic act or Charter Change, either would require the concurrence of the Legislative branch. It was not a smooth ride for both peace panels considering among others the skirmishes in the MILF. But after almost two years the FAB was sealed in September 2014. President Aquino, wanting to fast-track the passage of the bill, personally submitted the BBL draft to Congress.

“Sa atin naman pong Kongreso: nauunawaan namin na kailangan ninyong suriin nang mabuti ang panukalang batas na ito. Ang hiling lang namin, maipasa po sana ito sa lalong madaling panahon (To our Congress, we understand that you need to carefully study this proposed law. Our only wish is that this becomes a law as soon as possible),” the President said in his speech.

Back then, the leaders of both Houses, who are allies and party-mates of President Aquino, seemed to be holding the winning cards. This included the support of the leadership of Sulu Governor Sakur Tan, who has been in power since 2007.

The Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict reported this analysis last year: “Ruling politicians in the  ethnically and geographically separate Sulu archipelago are wary of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the peace agreements it negotiated. President Aquino had assumed he could lean on them to rally their constituents to vote in favor.”

These are all now bookmarks in history after the killing of Malaysian fugitive Zulkifi bin Hir alias Marwan in January 25, 2015 in an MILF territory. The BBL seemingly lost legislative popularity after the botched Oplan Exodus, a pursuit operation against terrorists that led to a bloody end: the much-publicized death of 44 PNP Special Action Force commandos, 18 MILF fighters and several civilians. 

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility had this to say about the outcome of the operation: “Mamasapano triggered the open expression of long-standing prejudices against Islamized Filipinos… [It] revived deeply embedded stereotypes of the Moro in the mind of many Filipinos. Believing the MILF to be the cause of the deaths of 44 SAF officers, the outcry reflected a belief that the BBL would be unjust.”

Furthermore: “…the coverage of the Mamasapano incident played a role in the formation of public opinion against the MILF and against the BBL — causing a dramatic turn-around in public attitude which moved from  acceptance of the signing of the CAB only a year ago to anger and hostility — including calls for the rejection of the further talks with the MILF.”

Seal of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Photo courtesy: JM Nualla.
Seal of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Photo courtesy: JM Nualla.

Peace Prospects

Despite the non-passage of the BBL in Congress, Coronel-Ferrer said the Bangsamoro peace process will not be hampered: “At this low point, we call for sobriety and perseverance.” She added that the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which was signed on March 27, 2014, will remain in effect.

However, she admitted that the implementation of some programs under the agreement will be stalled, like the decommissioning process or the lowering of arms by MILF rebels as part of the security component of normalization.

Normalization is the process through which communities affected by the decades-long armed conflict in Mindanao can return to a peaceful life. Basically, it entails the transition of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Force (BIAF) to civilian life. From now until the supposed plebiscite after the passage of the BBL, 30 percent of MILF’s arms should have been decommissioned. That is equivalent to tens of thousands of arms in circulation.

Aside from the decommissioning of arms, other components of normalization will be delayed such as the implementation of socio-economic and development programs for the impoverished Bangsamoro communities.

The Tausugs of Basilan. Photo courtesy: Che Gurrobat-Pascual of Backpacking Pilipinas.
The Tausugs of Basilan. Photo courtesy: Che Gurrobat-Pascual of Backpacking Pilipinas.

Political Landscape

In view of the upcoming elections, Coronel-Ferrer said the non-passage of the BBL will perpetuate the faulty political landscape in the South. In the proposed new Bangsamoro autonomous region, the form of government should have been parliamentary, which is more inclusive and participatory.

The BBL sets 60 members for the Bangsamoro parliament — with seats for parliamentary districts, party-list groups, non-Moro indigenous peoples, settler communities and women. With the non-passage of the BBL, Coronel-Ferrer said the Bangsamoro is stuck to a lopsided representation in favor of district representatives, presumably elected on the basis of plurality: a system that perpetuates personalistic politics and clan dynasties.

The strong geographic and ethnographic tendencies in the Philippine South is strong and it remains evident to this day. According to the son of a prominent political family in ARMM, bloodlines and ethnicity play a big role in determining the future of the Bangsamoro.

In short, he said, had the BBL hurdled Congress it would have not automatically translated to the success of the scheduled plebiscite. He said the Tausugs, Yakans and Samals of the Sulu archipelago are very cautious of the BBL led by Maguindanaoans and Maranaos.

A paper from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict entitled The Sulu Archipelago and the Philippine Peace Process had this explanation: “Both the MILF and the Philippine government know that bringing the Sulu archipelago on board is key. If they fail, the Bangsamoro will be smaller than the existing ARMM it intends to replace, raising questions about what the MILF has been able to deliver politically after decades of armed insurgency.”

All of these are best understood in the context of the centuries old struggle for autonomy in the South — the home of the Bangsamoro or the original inhabitants of the Mindanao, after a long history of colonial oppression and post-colonial neglect.

It's easy to see who is in power in Mindanao at any given time. Photo courtesy: JM Nualla.
It’s easy to see who is in power in Mindanao at any given time. Photo courtesy: JM Nualla.

Ceasefire Mechanism

The BBL may have yet to move forward as a piece of legislation, but Coronel-Ferrer said the peace agreement will remain binding. The primary concern for now is to preserve the ceasefire mechanism — this, with lessons of the Mamasapano tragedy in mind.

After all, the BBL might have seemingly lost legislative popularity only after the botched Oplan Exodus, a pursuit operation against terrorists that led to a bloody end — the much-publicized death of 44 PNP Special Action Force commandos, some rebels and civilians in January 2015.

But for how long will the ceasefire hold and for how long can a disgruntled minority wait for a promised peace that is yet to stand on its own?

Tawi-Tawi. Photo by Steno Padilla.
Tawi-Tawi. Photo by Steno Padilla.

About the Authors:

Ephraim Aguilar wears black almost all the time. He learned to play the ukulele to calm his rage. Presently, he is the Project Head for SubStory — the video documentary subsection of He is also an Executive Producer for News TV Live and a News Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. He was also previously a Southern Luzon Correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Journalism 2006, Bicol University. Read more of his articles here.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 5.13.55 PM

Toni Tiemsin is the Editor-in-Chief of Presently, he is a Media  and Communications Officer of international NGO Save the Children. Before his work in the development sector, Toni was an Executive Producer for GMA News hourly and breaking news spot, News Producer for primetime newscast 24 Oras, and the Supervising and Associate Producer of GMA News investigative and features unit Special Assignments Team. Journalism 2009, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.

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