Basic Aspirations

(published 29 September 2014, MST)

Dismemberment. State within a state. The rape of the Constitution. We’ve heard these terms used before even though no such things existed. Now we just cannot afford an alternative.
Thus said Amina Rasul of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy during a media roundtable on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law—the first of a series, they promised—in underscoring the need for the establishment of the Bangsamoro juridical entity in the very near future. The roundtable, attended by members of both the government and MILF peace panels as well as several lawyers, academics, civil society and media, was held on Monday, September 22 at Ateneo de Manila University.
The BBL, an offshoot of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in March this year, is now being deliberated in Congress. If passed, it would pave the way for a plebiscite and eventually the establishment of the Bangsamoro, a new political entity similar to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao but with an expanded territory, greater powers and greater fiscal autonomy.
For decades, Mindanao and its people have longed for security, access to land, reliable power, good infrastructure and competitive labor. The establishment of the Bangsamoro is touted as the key to finally achieving all this: peace, and consequent sustainable economic development for Muslims in Mindanao.
“This is genuine autonomy in lieu of independence,” Rasul said. “We want peace, not because peace is good to have, but because we need it.”
Members of the negotiating panel of both the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, led by Professor Miriam Coronel Ferrer and Mohagher Iqbal, were also at the forum to give their remarks on the BBL. 
Aware from the beginning that the issue of constitutionality was a much debated issue, Coronel Ferrer emphasized that despite the greater powers that would be enjoyed by the Bangsamoro, and despite the fact that the Bangsamoro would be parliamentary in form, the new entity would remain part and parcel of the central Philippine government. 
She highlighted various provisions of the law that illustrate that the Bangsamoro will not supplant the central government but actually work in consonance with it. “We all want to root out patronage and violence,” she said.
For his part, Iqbal urged everyone present to look up copies of the bill online and study it carefully. Each word, he said, “has a context that reflects a long history of negotiations.”
The question, now that the agreement has been signed and the basic law being deliberated, is “what now?”
What now, indeed, and how would it affect the lives of the people within the proposed territory, those living in adjacent territories, the whole of Mindanao, and the whole nation? What would it do to the so-called Filipino spirit?
Questions that ensued from the audience ranged from concerns over the would-be Bangsamoro’s ability to ensure security from foreign terrorists, especially in the age of IS. There were also concerns that indigenous peoples and other non-Muslims were not included in these consultations.
To both these issues, the panel said that there were measures to ensure greater security, and that what is in the Basic Law is not incongruous to IP rights.
With regard to the decommissioning of armed combatants, the panel assured the audience that alternatives will be given to the combatants, since private armed groups are not legal in the first place.
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These are blanket assurances, to be sure, not for any lack of sincerity but because at the moment, the scenario being discussed is in the realm of theory.  Only the next few months and years will tell us exactly how the public’s concerns are being addressed or not, because then we would have actual examples to prove our differing points of view. For now, best effort and a vigilance should suffice.
Ateneo de Manila University president, Fr. Jet Villarin, described the people as sober and wide-eyed with regard to the BBL. Wide-eyed, perhaps in reference to our high expectations that it would work this time, yet sober because we know there are many things that still need to be  refined, clarified, and communicated well. 
Dr. Filomeno Aguilar, the dean of the Ateneo School of Social Sciences, summed up our sentiments in four words: optimism, risk, trepidation and  hope.
It is optimism that causes us to persevere in finding solutions to the decades-old problem of strife and under-development. We believe in the sincerity and good faith of both parties and all other stakeholders, acknowledge the competence, hard work and dedication of those who have helped bring us this far.
We know, however, that despite our best efforts, there is only so much we can anticipate and do at the moment. There are risks. We cannot control everything and make provisions for all possible scenarios.
Because of this, there is trepidation. What if all the assurances given us were inaccurate or superficial? What if all our fears were founded, after all?
Then again, we cannot let our fear of the unknown dominate and restrict us from doing what we must in responding to the aspirations of our brothers and sisters in Mindanao. This is why we cling to the hope that lasting peace will come, and the quality of life for every Filipino, in whatever region they may be, would improve.
The key is to be vigilant, to keep reading, listening, and asking questions. We will get there.