The vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has warned the nation of war should the Congress fail to pass the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL or “Babala”), which seeks to create a separate “political entity” for the MILF—a “separatist state or substate,” in the view of an increasing number of Filipinos. This was promptly followed by a similar statement attributed to a spokesman of the Malaysian ministry of defense. President B. S. Aquino 3rd has responded by calling on Congress “to pass the BBL today, or prepare to count the body bags tomorrow.” Then he created a so-called “national peace council” to hold a “summit” on the Babala to help ensure its passage.
Aquino’s latest sound bite is a bit alarmist, while the “summit” proposal looks constitutionally skewed. Not even Neville Chamberlain in 1938 said anything half as alarming when appeasing Hitler before Britain finally declared war on Germany after its takeover of Sudetenland. As for the proposed Babala “summit,” it seems like a clear attempt to load the dice in favor of the MILF after the Congress has assumed full jurisdiction over the bill. One mainstream newspaper’s banner headline reveals the propaganda slant: “Chiz urges P-Noy to alter draft bill.”
Nothing in the story shows that Chiz (Sen. Francis Escudero) would like Malacanang to take over the legislative process; at this stage, Congress is fully in charge. But Malacanang wants to take over, and if all you read are the headlines, you’d think that’s what the few remaining senators who still think also want. At issue here are the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the secular character of the State. They should never be trifled with. But Malacañang seems less anxious about these values than the reawakened patriotic voices in Congress.
An interesting expose by the veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas helps to cast a stronger light on this point. This has to do with the Philippine claim to Sabah, which is seen to have been one of the Babala’s immediate casualties. In the middle of all the brouhaha on the Mamasapano massacre and the Babala, Tordesillas says the Department of Foreign Affairs has offered to “downgrade the Philippine claim to Sabah” in exchange for Malaysia’s support of the Philippines in its maritime territorial dispute with China.
Clueless about our national interests?
If true, it shows how cheaply the government imagines the real meaning and worth of its national interests. It means it is ready to abandon a huge chunk of property that is rich in oil, gas and various other mineral resources in exchange for a few rocks in the South China/West Philippine Sea just to be able to square off with China. Naturally, the DFA has denied the report, but so many more people are likely to believe it. My sentiment is with the many, but I am inclined to take the DFA’s side only because, to the best of my knowledge, we may no longer have any Philippine Sabah claim to “downgrade”—the government has long buried it. In fact, all sorts of nasty rumors have been floating around since last year about a ten-figure dollar payoff on Sabah that reportedly came through a Sultan in Peninsular Malaysia, which no one can prove or disprove. This has become part of the lurid lore on this subject.
The Babala is officially presented as the fruit of a multiple-brokered peace agreement. (So many foreign governments, and so many NGOs involved.) That is what the presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles and Aquino’s chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer tell us. But an increasing number of Filipinos seem to see it in virtually the same terms as Winston Churchill saw Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler—a declaration of “defeat without war.”
Because of Aquino’s known control of Congress, earlier achieved by paying off its members to force the enactment of a foreign-imposed Reproductive Health Law and to impeach and remove a possibly uncooperative Supreme Court Chief Justice, he and the MILF have from the very beginning assumed the Babala’s swift passage. The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014, rather than the Constitution, would be the ultimate basis of the law to be enacted. Congress would automatically pass the draft, without any constitutional objections, and without any proposed amendments.
However, the Jan. 25, 2015 massacre of 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force commandos by the MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, and the nationwide outcry for Aquino to assume responsibility for it and to step down changed all that rosy perspective. The Congress finally woke up, and a number of Babala co-authors withdrew. They began to worry about their own political survival for their uncritical support of the draft. They began to question the bill’s previously unquestioned premises.
If the MILF truly represents the entire Bangsamoro, what then is the standing of the Moro National Liberation Front, with whom the government had long finalized a peace agreement, and for whom the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was formally constituted? What about the BIFF, which had fought alongside the MILF in exterminating the SAF contingent? And what about the so-called Justice for the Islamic Movement, which has begun creating its own noise?
Cardinal-Archbishop Tagle must address a fundamental issue
If the MILF is truly committed to peace, what were the three international terrorists, who were the object of the SAF commandos’ mission on Jan. 25, doing inside their base camp? And why did that peaceful SAF commando operation end in that carnage? Finally, as a matter of fundamental constitutional principle, why should a secular republic carve out part of its national territory to create a purely confessional (Islamic) state or substate?
These questions were not discussed in the peace agreement, and are not likely to be answered in PNoy’s peace “summit.” Why? Because the answers are not easy, assuming they actually exist. The most important of these involves the creation of a confessional Islamic entity within a completely secular and pluralistic nation-state, different from an autonomous entity where people of various confessions could live together as a large multicultural unit.
In a freewheeling discussion of all the issues, Cardinal-Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who is one of the summit “convenors,” will have to point out this fundamental issue, both as a citizen and as a pastor and moral guide. What he will say may not at all be helpful to Malacanang and the MILF, but he will have to say it, in the name of truth and justice. Until now, no one has wanted to talk about it, but in a “peace summit,” it cannot be avoided. It is, therefore, likely that a further clarification of the issues could only make the Babala harder to push.
Should we then expect a Malaysian invasion, or an all-out war with the MILF just because we could not set the truth aside or bend our constitutional and moral principles to suit their convenience? In the spirit of the season, I would earnestly propose that instead of trying to pull out all the stops to pass a bill that cannot be passed without violating the Constitution and creating so much anxiety and unrest among our people, President Aquino should now meet with the top leaders of the MILF, as they once did in Tokyo sometime back, and agree to step back in order to move forward.
We have to reexamine the problem at greater depth and length in order to arrive at a workable way out. If the MILF believes they need and deserve authentic autonomy for their own people, so do the rest of the Filipino people in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao need and deserve it as well. Therefore, instead of trying to design one autonomous region for one rebel group or one region, with attributes resembling those of an independent state or substate, we should now try to design an autonomous structure for all the regions, and prepare to transform our unitary nation-state into one great federal union like the Federal Republic of Germany, Canada or the United States.
Instead of consuming ourselves on the passage of one problematic bill that may not be worth passing in the end, perhaps we should now begin to work on the framing of a new Constitution that would bring in the desired structural and system change for the benefit of all. This could mean a constitutional convention duly elected by the people to write a new Constitution that would lay to rest all the constitutional issues that have arisen in the framing of the Babala. Instead of trying to intimidate and frighten us with the threat of violence and war, as the MILF vice chair and the Malaysian defense ministry spokesman are trying to do, we need to integrate all our resources for nation-building, solidarity and peace. And we must do it now.