President Benigno Aquino 3rd called on lawmakers to pass a bill endorsing a peace agreement signed exactly a year ago on Friday between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), warning them they would otherwise start counting
Aquino had wanted the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would give autonomy to the majority Catholic nation’s Muslim minority in southern Mindanao, passed this month. But Congress suspended debates on the proposed law in the face of public outrage over the killings of 44 members of the police Special Action Force in an anti-terror mission in January in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao.
The police raid sought to capture or kill two men on the US government’s list of The police raid sought to capture or kill two men on the US government’s list of “most wanted terrorists” who were living among Muslim rebels.
One of the men, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who had a $5-million bounty on his head, was reported killed. But the other suspected terrorist, Abdul Basit Usman, escaped as rebels surrounded and killed the SAF troops.
“This is the crossroads we face. We take pains to forge peace today, or we count body bags tomorrow,” Aquino said in a nationwide television address.
“Perhaps it is easy for you to push for all-out war,” he added, hitting out at critics who have condemned the peace deal with the MILF.
“But if the conflict grows, the number of Filipinos shooting at other Filipinos will grow, and it would not be out of the question that a friend or loved one be one of the people who will end up inside a body bag.”
The President in his speech on Friday called for a national peace summit among “citizen leaders” and designated Manila Archbishop Antonio Cardinal Tagle, retired Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. and business tycoon Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala as “independent convenors.”
Also named to lead the summit are former Ambassador to the Vatican Howard Dee and Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, founder of Teach Peace, Build Peace Movement.
The council of leaders was particularly told to “dissect the proposed [BBL] in a calm and reasonable manner.”
Davide is the father of Aquino’s key political ally in the Visayas, Cebu Gov. Hilario “Junjun” Davide Jr.
The President had designated the elder Davide as chairman of the Truth Commission that was to investigate allegedly large-scale corruption during the Arroyo administration in the first executive order he signed in his first day in office on June 30, 2010.
Deposed President Joseph Estrada immediately criticized Davide’s appointment and called for investigation of his apparently inconsistent use of court funds during his tenure as Chief Justice.
The truth body, however, failed to take off after its constitutionality was assailed in the Supreme Court.
Dee, meanwhile, is the father-in-law of Aquino’s younger sister, Viel.
He was a former government peace negotiator who in 1998 rallied businessmen and civil society to form “Tabang Mindanaw” to help the people in the region recover from devastation wrought by the El Niño phenomenon.
“They will gather other responsible and respected leaders to spearhead a National Peace Summit to deliberate on and discuss the BBL,” Aquino said. “They will dissect the proposed law in a calm and reasonable manner that will not incite anger and hopelessness. This way, the BBL can be improved,” he added.
The President said the peace summit will come up with “a report that will be made public, so that everyone may be informed, and so that more of our countrymen may understand the matter.”
“In this manner, we will be able to advance a reasonable decision as regards the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” Aquino added.
The President called the BBL as one of the most important proposed bills of his administration.
“It answers the two most pressing problems of our countrymen: poverty and violence,” Aquino said.
He warned that it would be difficult to restart peace talks if the current process failed and the MILF leadership lost its influence among its members to more radical elements.
“If the proposed bill is lacking, it can be addressed by pushing through with the debates on it,” Aquino said in his national television address.
“I do not pursue peace just to add to my legacy. What we are pursuing is a genuine peace that truly addresses the roots of the problems that led to violence.”
Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, meanwhile, has predicted a grim future for the BBL Ejercito also on Friday reiterated his earlier statements that he does not trust the MILF anymore because of what happened to the SAF commandos in Mamasapano.
“I don’t think the BBL would get through Congress. Even without the law, we’ve seen how abusive was the MILF, what more if we’ll have a law granting them vast powers. They can’t be trusted,” the senator told reporters during the108th founding anniversary of San Juan City (Metro Manila).
Ejercito was an original co-author of the Senate version of the proposed BBL. He withdrew his signature after the Mamasapano incident.
The senator scored members of the government peace panel for giving more importance to the feelings of the MILF rather than giving focus to the death of the elite police troops.
“This government is more concerned with the MILF than giving justice to the slain SAF commandos,” Ejercito said.
“The government has not expressed commitment to pursue justice for the policemen.
They’re even blaming the SAF for the incident,” the senator added, reiterating that there could be no peace without justice.
Ejercito also lambasted President Benigno Aquino 3rd for his gross incompetence and for avoiding responsibility in the Mamasapano debacle.
“As Commander-in-Chief, he [Aquino] should have taken responsibility. He should apologize [for his shortcomings in the botched police operation],” the senator said.
“The problem is, the President is stubborn and too proud,” Ejercito added.
With Neil A. Alcober