President Benigno Aquino 3rd warned of “body bags.” Days later in April, his chief negotiator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, University of the Philippines political science professor Miriam Coronel Ferrer, spoke of a “very bloody” religious war if MILF elements, disillusioned by peace process problems, become radicalized: “It is a real threat, that kind of radicalization toward [jihadist]groups” like the terrorist ISIS.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein not only warned: “If the peace process can’t go through in June, then it means war. Twelve years of talks and because of one incident, they will have war.” He also said in late March that Malaysian forces in islets off Sabah were gearing up for a flood of refugees: “If we have a wall of offshore bases, we may have a chance to stop the exodus of people.”
Will there be war if the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law isn’t passed this month? Not if the MILF remains astute and focused on its longstanding political goals.
Sure, there could be some fighting like the 2008 attacks by renegade insurgents after the Supreme Court voided the Memorandum Agreement on Ancestral Domain, or MOA-AD. Or the September 2013 siege of Zamboanga City by Moro National Liberation Front fighters unhappy with being set aside in the ongoing peace process with the MILF, which broke away from the MNLF in opposition to the latter’s peace accords in 1976 and 1996.
Such eruptions would be tragic and terrible, but nothing different from similar hostilities faced by the nation and the armed forces and police in the past.
‘We will not disengage from the peace process’ — Iqbal
As for all-out war and terrorism by the MILF, in fact, Vice-Chairman Ghazali Jaafar said just a day or so before Aquino’s body-bags speech that war was just one of the options for the insurgent group if the BBL was watered down or scrapped. The Front could also negotiate with the next administration. A third course of action, said Jaafar: “We could go to the United Nations.”
The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the Framework Agreement (FAB) it subsumed were signed in ceremonies broadcast to the world and supported by foreign governments. Thus, the accords could be seen as internationally affirmed pacts which could be brought to the UN if there were violations.
A day before Jaafar’s March 26 remarks, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told an interfaith peace forum in Cagayan de Oro City: “The MILF will not disengage from the peace process no matter what will happen to that Bangsamoro Basic Law.” Echoing Jaafar, Iqbal told the group led by Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma that the group would pursue the BBL passage even after Aquino’s term ends next June.
He said “a watered down BBL will not solve the Bangsamoro problem” and would be the worst outcome compared with its enactment as drafted or its failure to pass at all. But the third scenario of Congress not passing the Basic Law at all, is preferable to its drastic revision. “We would rather like this [non-passage] because we can engage the next administration for the passage of the BBL,” Iqbal told the interfaith forum.
Why war would hurt the MILF struggle
That Muslim rebels would keep pursuing peace even if the Bangsamoro bill doesn’t pass, should not surprise seasoned political and strategic thinkers.
Consider this: With the Bangsamoro pact, the MILF has obtained from the government immense concessions which have certain quarters even saying that the accord gives the envisioned Bangsamoro entity the characteristics of a nation-state, including a defined territory, citizenry, government, security force, and even a name and a flag.
The CAB and its annexes also provides for mammoth cash transfers to the proposed region, generous revenue sharing, lucrative control over natural resources, and unprecedented powers and authority for the Bangsamoro government and its regional counterparts of major national agencies, including constitutional commissions.
The Framework Agreement even stipulates that the Armed Forces of the Philippines would relinquish law enforcement functions in the Bangsamoro, and be redeployed commensurate to its reduced role. That could well make the regional police the largest security force in Bangsamoro.
If its elected parliament should declare independence, and its police moves to defend it, the existence of a duly constituted authority with a security force would give the seceding entity the status of belligerency, allowing foreign nations to recognize it and give it assistance.
The concessions won by the MILF from the government even prompted the Peace Council and Summit convened by President Aquino to give support to the BBL, to call for significant amendments so as to avoid constitutionality problems.
The Council report urged that the so-called “asymmetric relationship” between the national and Bangsamoro governments be defined in a manner compliant with the Constitution. It also wanted phrases inserted to make it clear that powers given to regional agencies do not undermine or reduce the authority of national instrumentalities, including the Supreme Court.
In sum, the MILF got the best deal it could ever get, thanks to Aquino’s immense desire to conclude a peace agreement during his term. Why then would the rebels go back to square one by launching a full-scale war and a terrorist campaign, which would lead national leaders to scrap the pact and end negotiations?
The MILF’s international backers would pull back, distancing themselves from what could well be declared a terrorist organization. Even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, grouping Muslim nations across the globe, and peace talks mediator Malaysia may find it hard to keep backing the MILF if it goes to war.
So those senators still resisting Palace threats and inducements, should not worry that revising or even shelving the draft BBL would spark full-scale hostilities. The real threat to peace and security is creating a Bangsamoro under provisions that encourage separatism and confer regional powers which make it easier to harbor terrorists.