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Why the MILF prefers BBL over federalism

 

The author served as chair of the government peace panel in talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during the Aquino administration. She is also a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. This piece first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is reposted here with permission from the author.

 

“Only a shift to federalism will satisfy the Bangsamoro,” President Duterte has stated several times. This, according to him, will correct the historical injustice committed against the Muslim population in Mindanao.

 

True, federalism could accommodate the proposals of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which were modified or even discarded in the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

 

Yet, the MILF continues to push for the passage of a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in spite of its limited constitutional parameters.

 

So, why is the MILF not hitching its wagon to the President’s federalism gambit?

 

Against generic ‘phederalism’

 

To begin with, the MILF did not fight the government to change the whole Philippine system. It’s the Communist Party of the Philippines that aims to do that—overthrow the old and build a new regime.

 

What the MILF leaders want is their own self-governed territory in parts of their claimed homeland in Mindanao. They are neutral on what the rest of the country does to itself.

 

One-size-fits-all

 

A one-size-fits-all federalism, spelled “phederalism” by some proponents, does not resonate with the MILF. Notably, all developed proposals consist of converting existing regions into similar or “symmetrical” federal states.

 

For the MILF and its Bangsamoro supporters, a shift to a federal setup won’t do justice to the uniqueness of the Bangsamoro quest for their right to self-determination, their identity and institutions.

 

Bangsamoro stakeholders also criticize the more recent scheme of four federal states made up of Mindanao, the Visayas, Luzon and Metro Manila. They believe this would reduce the Bangsamoro into an “enclave” of a Mindanao state.

 

Morevoer, these proposals seek to confine the prospective Bangsamoro state to the current territorial jurisdiction of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

 

To the Bangsamoro stakeholders, the ARMM’s five provinces, and Marawi and Lamitan cities fall short of what’s left of their claimed Mindanao homeland.

 

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, on the other hand, seeks to rectify this limited territorial coverage by enabling contiguous geographic areas to join a Bangsamoro state should they wish.

 

Different imagined substate

 

True, the reference to a Bangsamoro state in the original 2010 draft MILF compact was a substate entity enjoying wide autonomy.

 

This document imagined an “asymmetrical compact of free association” that is more akin to associated states like Puerto Rico or the free associated state of Palau, which are attached to the United States but enjoying nation-state status.

 

The MILF drew from these existing historical constructs but developed its own context-suitable model that didn’t require a federal system.

 

This, the group believed, could be possible via a constitutional amendment, specifically an appendage that keeps the rest of the Constitution intact.

 

Clearly, the MILF’s vision then and now was for the Bangsamoro since the group is negotiating for them, not for or of the whole Philippines.

 

Ownership of process

 

Also, the MILF wants ownership of the outcome of the peace process.

 

The Moro leaders want a Bangsamoro entity that results from their own struggle — one that had moved from independence through armed struggle, to a peacefully negotiated solution within the Republic of the Philippines.

 

Neither a constituent assembly nor a constitutional convention is an arena that the MILF can claim as its own. Although the MILF has belatedly, albeit hesitantly, learned to engage Congress and only Congress can legislate a Bangsamoro state into existence, the group assumes that the end result would still be based on the agreements.

 

Without such participation by the MILF, the “free choice of the Bangsamoro people in regard to their national identity” — as they had put it in their original proposal — cannot be achieved.

 

Complicated, shaky

 

The MILF thus finds the dual track of a Bangsamoro Basic Law cum federalism complicated and shaky.

 

Even as the MILF continues to publicly express their trust in President Duterte, the private comments and social media posts of the Bangsamoro stakeholders reflect brewing doubts on the real intent of his administration.

 

Given the President’s tight squeeze on Congress, a BBL could have easily gone through the legislative mill within a year.

 

But the President issued the needed executive order (EO) to establish the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission only in November last year.

 

Confusing

 

A month later, he created the Consultative Commission, a body that was given six months to recommend changes in the Constitution. The MILF found this confusing.

 

In April, the President assured the MILF by saying he will only constitute the Consultative Commission until after a draft BBL is submitted to Congress. The submission of a draft bill just might happen next month when Congress reopens.

 

Still, it is unclear from the President’s repeated privileging of federalism how Congress will navigate the dual track.

 

Add to this the third track with Nur Misuari’s faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, which is just focused on amending the existing ARMM law.

 

Sticking to signed documents

 

The MILF is just being consistent by adhering to the signed agreements.

 

After all, in the absence of legislation, these agreements are the MILF leaders’ only hold on the government. They know that any major change could only retrogress into more changes and delays.

 

From this basic need for security, it behooves the MILF to stick to the signed Bangsamoro roadmap.

 

As MILF panel chair Mohagher Iqbal puts it: “We [had] better secure a 10 centavo already in the basket than having to gamble for a peso [that] is still in wilderness.”

 

Evidently, between a BBL now and federalism in the future, the MILF pragmatically prefers the former.

 

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