Distracting issue may mar the BARMM inauguration

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, created under the Bangsamoro Organic Law, was inaugurated in Cotabato City yesterday. In the morning, the Bangsa-moro Transition Authority, the region’s interim government until the election of the Bangsamoro Parliament in 2022, convened, adopted its rules and elected its officers. Supposedly, in the afternoon the BARMM was to have its inaugural ceremonies.

President Duterte was scheduled to attend the event, per Malacañang’s media advisory on Thursday. As of this writing it couldn’t be ascertained whether he attended what to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was a historic occasion. His failure to be present would speak volumes.

Oddly, two major dailies – the Philippine STAR and the Philippine Daily Inquirer – didn’t carry any news item on the BARMM inauguration in their issues yesterday.

But last Thursday, the STAR ran a news report quoting President Duterte, which could distract if not cause deep concern among the officials of the BTA and the BARMM interim leadership, led by MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim.

In a speech in Koronadal City Tuesday, the President was quoted as having said:

“Here in Mindanao, we are grappling with so many fronts. I am dealing with the drug problem and at the same time, I am in a hurry to strike a deal with Nur Misuari… We have to deal with (Misuari) again and I hope that we could find the space, the time and the issues that would be more acceptable to everybody, to both the lumad, the Christian and the Moro.”

He had earlier said that following the creation of the BTA, the concerns of Misuari should also be addressed by the government to ensure the success of the peace talks with the two Bangsamoro revolutionary groups. Misuari is the founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from which the MILF broke away in 1977. However, Misuari now leads just one of a number of factions of the MNLF.

What complicates the situation for the Bangsamoro – and for that matter for the Duterte government and the Filipino people — is Misuari’s new demand when he met with the President over a week ago: He no longer just pushed for full implementation of the MNLF’s Final Peace Agreement with the Cory Aquino government signed in 1996. Instead, he demanded the adoption of a federal system of government – with a threat that he would go to war again should federalism fail to materialize during the three remaining years of the Duterte government.

In response, Duterte said the federalism sought by Misuari would have to be done in compliance with the 1987 Constitution. “Maybe, somehow, we can craft a setup within the federal structures, but it has to go into a process and I am sure Chairman Misuari knows that everything must be in accordance with the Constitution.”

Interpreting the President’s statements, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the government and the MNLF would each form five-member panels to meet and discuss the federalism issue. He further quoted Duterte as having said, “After which [the panels’ meeting], we will celebrate for its success; and if it fails, we [Misuari and he] will die together,” in reference to Misuari’s threat to go to war.

Is President Duterte serious about pursuing a “deal” with Misuari, which implies setting up another political structure aside from the BARMM? How would the MILF and the nascent BARMM respond to this presidential action?

But the initial reaction from the Senate leadership seems to be dampers to the Misuari demand-threat and the President’s seeming accommodation to it.

“I don’t think we should put a lot of weight to it,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III remarked. Federalism, he pointed out, is a complex matter and the nation should not change the form of government on the say-so of one person (Misuari). On the latter’s threat of war, he said, it should be examined if it constitutes inciting to sedition or rebellion (Misuari is already facing a number of charges in court; he is out on bail).

Yet, Duterte’s openness to work out a deal with Misuari on federalism is rooted in his agenda to pursue a shift from the current unitary form of government to a federal system. A consultative committee created by him and headed by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, has submitted a draft federal constitution for the President’s referral to Congress. Duterte hasn’t yet acted on the matter.

Then in October last year, Malacañang created another body, the Inter-Agency Task Force for Federalism, to “integrate, harmonize and coordinate efforts toward federalism and constitutional reforms.” Last March 18-19, as head of the task force, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año convened a national government conference, attended by 200 delegates from 76 national government agencies to discuss what Duterte wants them to do. Topics covered were the fundamental principles of federalism, the need to shift from a unitary to a federal system of government, and the “significant role” of the government agencies in the advocacy campaign for federalism “as one of the President’s primary agenda.” (Shouldn’t they have done this from the beginning of his administration?)

Further complicating the federalism drive was the passage in the House of Representatives last December of a supposed draft federal charter, principally authored by Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. However, the draft charter falls short of a full-scale federal system. Rather, its key objectives are to remove two important provisions of the 1987 Constitution: banning political dynasties and setting term limits to all elective public officials.

Thus there is the alarming possibility that the half-baked federalism project of President Duterte and Arroyo’s devious scheme could easily sneak through the Senate in the 18th Congress – should administration candidates in May’s mid-term elections win a majority of the 12 contested seats in the upper chamber.

Are we prepared for the consequences of that?

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
March 30, 2019

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