MANILA— The Philippines is expected to sign a permanent peace pact soon with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group. Officials have one month to craft a measure for an autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro, in the Muslim majority southern Philippines. The pact would end decades of fighting that has cost more than 120,000 lives.
The Bangsamoro Transition Commission must submit its first draft of the proposed agreement to the Office of the President by March 31. After that, the proposal has to make its way through Congress before legislators go on summer break.
The whole process is on a tight schedule that needs to be completed in time for the 2016 elections.
“The battle has now shifted to a more constructive engagement with Congress and other branches of government to realize that what are the essential elements in those agreements would be translated into law. It’s practically a new form of engagement, which is unfamiliar to me, especially,” said Mohagher Iqbal, head of the transition commission.
For 40 years, Iqbal, a ranking member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), fought the Philippine government for Muslims’ right to self-determination. He became chief peace negotiator more than 10 years ago and now chairs the transition commission of former rebels, government officials and civil society that will draft the law to create a new self-governing region called “Bangsamoro.”
The proposed measure would define Bangsamoro’s powers and structure. The new region is expected to have a parliamentary form of government with the ability to raise its own revenues and form its own law enforcement, among other powers. The central Philippines government would handle national defense, currency and postal services.
The next steps will be a “huge challenge,” according to Rommel Banlaoi, the executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“Congress is the main battleground now because there are members of Congress who have expressed their reservations on the proposed Bangsamoro Government and at the same time there were also apprehensions on the part of other stakeholders that the agreement is giving the MILF so much power already,” said Banlaoi.
Banlaoi pointed to the Philippine Congress’ history of lengthy debates, which sometimes can run on for years. Furthermore, he said, some local officials also have apprehensions about losing their power base with a new structure in place. He said another challenge is the Muslim factions opposed to the agreement that have been resorting to violence.
The proposed region essentially supersedes an existing autonomous region that was formed under a 1996 pact signed by a smaller rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front.
The ideal scenario is for Congress to pass the agreement by the end of the year, so that residents of the proposed region can decide in a referendum in 2015 whether they want to be part of the new entity. Once its borders are defined, they will elect leaders during the 2016 national elections. That is also when Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s term ends.
In a speech this week, Presidential Peace Advisor Teresita Deles said the peace process has strong support, but she also highlighted some of the difficulties ahead.
“We expect rigid scrutiny of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress. We shall fight for the bill with utmost transparency and professionalism, and with only the national interest in mind. In this, we have the full support of the national leadership,” said Deles.
Rommel Banlaoi warned that in the rush to have a bill signed, some parts might be “watered down”. Iqbal said the Basic Law will be “flexible” because the fine details are supposed to be woven into legislation to be created by the new Bangsomoro parliament.