The use of the word “Bangsamoro” in the proposed law for the autonomous region or sub-state in southern Philippines should be the starting point in the discussion and review of the bill now pending in Congress. It is the central conundrum that has bugged the nation for months and makes the legislation so problematic and controversial.
Compared to this, President Aquino’s anxiety to see the bill passed in time for his state of the nation address at the opening of the next regular session of Congrss on Monday, July 27, this year is inconsequential. And so is his intent to make the BBL his principal legacy at the close of his presidency on June 30, 2016.
The word “bangsa” is Malay, which means “nation.” It was grafted to the name “Moro”, which the Spanish colonizers gave the Muslims in Mindanao, when they found them to have the same religion and folkways as the Muslims of North Africa, who ruled the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries up to the Reconquista, when the Moors were overthrown.
“Bangsa” and “moro” were conflated to form “Bangsamoro” to denote the Muslims in Mindanao in order to suggest distinct nationhood.
Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was the first to use Bangsamoro to describe the front’s bid to create a separate and independent state out of areas in the south with predominantly Muslim populations.
Until Benigno BS Aquino 3rd became our president, no president of the Philippine Republic and no administration has signed any document that explicitly used the term “Bangsamoro” to refer to Filipino Muslims or their various forms of self-government and aspirations. For sound reason. To admit “bangsamoro” in state documents is to give recognition to a Moro nation, which is not allowed by the 1987 constitution and previous constitutions of our nation.
In an enlightening paper entitled “The Struggle of the Muslim people in Southern Philippines: Independence or Autonomy,” Dr. Temario Rivera of the University of the Philippines and the Christian University of Tokyo wrote this revealing passage:
“In pursuing its project of an independent Bangsamoro, the MNLF under Misuari stressed the geographic boundaries of the pre-colonial , traditional Moro homelands as the territorial base of this proposed entity which , however, now comprises mostly Christian-dominated provinces.
“In recognition of this reality, Misuari therefore uses the concept of the Bangsamoro to include the Muslims, Christians, and the indigenous highlanders in this area. To show that this political project is not only for Muslims, the MNLF has also sought the support of non-Muslim personalities and groups, particularly those who resent the political and economic marginalization of Mindanao by the Manila-based central government.”
When the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its leaders use ‘Bangsamoro,” they do not mean the same thing as Misuari and the MNLF. According to Rivera, “The MILF has officially sought a more Islamic identity for its movement with Islam as its official ideology. One of the main charges of Hashim Salamat against Misuari when he led his supporters to break away from the MNLF was that the leadership was being manipulated away by Misuari from Islamic bases, methodologies and objectives, and was fast evolving towards a Marxist-Maoist orientation.”
Until Aquino and his negotiators came along, Bangsamoro was never used in the formal agreements that the Philippine government signed with the MNLF viz, (1) the Tripoli Agreement between GRP and the MNLF dated December 23, 1976; and (2) the final agreement between the GRP and the MNLF dated September 2, 1996.
The enabling law to implement the final agreement, Republic Act No. 6734, an act to Strengthen and expand the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), does not refer to a Bangsamoro.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came close to affixing her name to an agreement bearing the name of Bangsamoro, when her administration negotiated and agreed to the Memorandum of Agreement on the ancestral domain aspect of the GRP-MILF Agreement on Peace of 2001, which was set for signing on 5 August 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
By any measure, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) would have represented a radically substantial recognition of Bangsamoro’s historic claim to an ancestral homeland, which would have been complemented by the creation of a new Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) with radical powers and authority.
It was fortuitous that the Supreme Court, in response to petitions filed by opponents of MOA-AD, stopped the scheduled signing in Malaysia.
Rivera notes: “One extremely contentious procedural issue was whether the MOA-AD was not just “a mere listing of consensus points” but an immediately binding agreement upon signing and with consequent favorable effects on the international standing of the BJE as a legal entity. A related point raised by critics is the charge that President Arroyo had no authority to commit to the MILF that Congress and the Filipino people will amend the 1987 Constitution to conform to the principles and provisions of the MOA-AD.”
The backlash of negative public opinion doomed MOA-AD to an early death. It was quietly set aside. And this impelled rethinking “out of the box” in the forging of a workable peace agreement between the government and the MILF.
What Arroyo could not commit, Aquino has generously supplied.
With the accession to office of President Aquino, who was eager to win a Nobel Peace Prize with a working and effective peace agreement, peace advocates and negotiators on both sides tested new “out of the box” ideas in the peace process.
One of these ideas was the brainstorm of bringing President Aquino and top MILF leaders to Tokyo for a quickie.
The next idea was the accelerated negotiation and writing of a comprehensive peace agreement, with Bangsamoro spelled out in the very title of the document.
The crowning idea was the passage by the Philippine Congress of a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which embodies everything that Moro rebel leaders have long dreamed about.
To reach an intelligent decision on this important measure, members of both houses of Congress should individually review all existing agreements and documents that shed light on the problems and challenges.
Congress needs to listen to the counsel of people, who, while outside President Aquino’s circle of cronies and advisers, have the highest interest of the nation at heart and are no less ardent in their desire for peace and stability in Mindanao.
Notable, for instance, is the counsel offered by two retired justices of the Supreme Court, Justice Vicente Mendoza and Justice Florentino Feliciano.
Justice Mendoza believes that the BBL provision that allows the creation of a parliamentary form of government in the Bangsamoro region is unconstitutional.
“The provisions on the Bangsamoro government are unconstitutional. Must our Constitution be violated in order to have peace and development in Mindanao? You can have peace and development without violating the Constitution,” said Mendoza.
A parliamentary government in Bangsamoro makes it “asymmetrical to the government of the Philippines and symmetrical to the government of the Federation of Malaysia,” he said.
For his part, Justice Feliciano says the BBL alone cannot bring peace to Mindanao, and he asked how the BBL can bind members of the MILF when they are considered insurgents.
“Insurgents are rebels fighting a sovereign state. Rebellion is a serious offense against the Republic,” he said.
Feliciano also expressed apprehension that foreign states and foreign corporations would be anxiously waiting to secure exploration permits from the Bangsamoro entity over Mindanao’s most strategic resources like oil, gas, and minerals.
“The government and the republic must be prepared to defend by all means… those resources,” the retired justice said.
Congress should not decide on the mere say-so of President Aquino, or a wishy-washy peace council, or opinion writers.
We are all fallible in our judgments. And nobody has a monopoly of wisdom on this problem that has challenged this nation and its leaders for centuries, including the passing overlords of the archipelago.