Finding a lasting solution to the conflict in Mindanao was one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promises in 2016. As the country’s first president to hail from Mindanao, he is determined to realize the great development potential of the island, which, for decades now, has been lost to the ongoing fight of the Muslims for self-determination. The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) was signed on July 26 this year, and the road to peace finally looks bright.
President Duterte recognizes that Moros desire “historical justice.” A large part of Mindanao, home to the Muslims, was able to resist Western colonial rule for hundreds of years. But at the beginning of the 20th century, they were pushed into certain areas as a minority through the US military campaign and the resettlement projects of the Christian-dominated national government. Moros were radicalized by these threats, which were later on exacerbated by then President Marcos, who was allegedly responsible for the killing of 11 Muslim military trainees in Corregidor. This prompted the creation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that sought the establishment of the Bangsamoro nation through an armed rebellion.
Previous administrations have attempted to attain peace in the south, but to no avail. The creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989 under former President Corazon Aquino has been called a failure, marred by continued conflict in the area and aggravated by corruption and political dynasties taking advantage of the situation. The grievances and sentiments of the Muslims in the region worsened. Calls for true autonomy and self-governance heightened in an area that has remained poor because of corruption and unsafe because of the ongoing conflict.
In 2011, former President Benigno Aquino III, recognized that the ARMM is a “failed experiment” and sought to go back to the negotiation table with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to sign the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) in 2012. In 2014, the government and the MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which formed the basis of the Bangsamoro Basic Law proposed in Congress. While everything seemed on track, questions of constitutionality were raised, and the unfortunate killing of the 44 members of the police Special Action Force in an encounter with the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Mamasapano, Maguindanao in 2015 also killed the BBL; the 16th Congress adjourned in February 2016 without passing the law.
The BOL, which is the iteration of the BBL in the Duterte Administration, sought to reconcile versions of the proposed measure that were acceptable to the government and the rebel groups. With this law, the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity that would be more autonomous than ARMM will proceed.
The ARMM was a result of the peace negotiations between the government and the MNLF. The MILF, a breakaway group of the MNLF, touts the BOL as a more inclusive attempt at peace in the south, since both factions will work to achieve a unified government in the region.
The new political entity under the BOL is called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Its territories will consist of the ARMM area (Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, and Maguindanao), while six towns in Lanao del Norte and 39 barangays in North Cotabato will have to vote in a plebiscite to determine if the people want to belong to Bangsamoro. Other contiguous areas may opt in, provided that there is a local government resolution or a petition where at least 10 percent of registered voters want to join the plebiscite.
The management of its resources, such as inland waters (especially Lake Lanao) will be left to the jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro, and they are free to pursue their political, economic, social, and cultural development.
The political structure will be parliamentary-democratic, with the Bangsamoro Parliament being the highest organ of government. The people will elect an 80-member parliament that represents different parties, legislative districts, and sectors such as the indigenous peoples. The parliament will elect a chief minister and two deputy chief ministers among themselves, with the chief minister appointing his own cabinet. Shari’ah courts shall have jurisdiction over cases that exclusively involve Muslims.
The Bangsamoro will have an automatic allocation equivalent to five percent of the net national internal revenue of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC), while the region’s share in government revenue taxes, fees, charges, and taxes on natural resources will be at 75 percent. Additionally, the national government will allocate P5 billion to the Bangsamoro annually for a period of 10 years for the rehabilitation of conflict affected areas.
The national government maintains the responsibility for security and defense of the Bangsamoro, with the Philippine National Police (PNP) organizing, maintaining, and supervising a Police Regional Office for law enforcement.
The transition will proceed after the plebiscite to be managed by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to ratify the BARMM. President Duterte will appoint the members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) that include the incumbent officials of the ARMM and several sectoral representatives. Duterte will also appoint an interim Chief Minister among the BTA members who will organize an interim Cabinet. The transition will last until the first local elections to be held in 2022, after which the BTA will be dissolved upon the assumption of the elected Bangsamoro Parliament.
The road to peace, however, remains torturous. There are huge differences and divisions among Moros that need to be settled, doubts on the rebels truly decommissioning their arms, and the poverty that continues to mire Moros in the region, among others.
There is also the challenge of getting the more prosperous areas in Mindanao, such as Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, to join the Bangsamoro, since many of these are wary of the dominance of the MILF leadership in the new political entity.
According to surveys, majority of Filipinos also remain largely neutral to the creation of the Bangsamoro, with many from Mindanao uncertain about the prospect of peace in the region. It is also certain that critics of the BOL will bring the question of constitutionality of the measure to court, since it will have implications to the integrity of the Philippine territory.
There is also concern with how the administration’s project to shift to federalism will impact the BOL. Supporters of President Duterte tout Bangsamoro as a good test case for federalism, while the critics argue that Bangsamoro itself is proof that self-governance is possible without shifting the entire country to a federal form of government.
For now, the road ahead might be seem arduous, but the BOL certainly makes the prospect for peace in Mindanao a lot more realistic. Our neighboring countries and many international organizations and regional blocs have hailed the BOL as a landmark achievement of the Duterte administration.
The administration, then, must not rest on its laurels just yet, and proceed with the hard work of making the dreams of Bangsamoro a reality for the Moro peoples of Mindanao. —John Lee Candelaria
*John Lee Candelaria is a graduate student at the Graduate School for International Development and Cooperation, Hiroshima University. He is the author of the book Readings in Philippine History.