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#BBLWatch: Why asymmetry should not be confused with independence


IAG Executive Director Benedicto Bacani talked to MILF’s Abhoud Lingga, GPH’s Iona Jalijali, peace advocate and human rights lawyer Suharto Ambolodto, and political analyst Edmund Tayao in a national forum on the BBL in Makati City on Sept. 24, 2014. The following are sound bites from the forum. The complete piece will be published in an upcoming special report.


From the ongoing committee hearings and public consultations on the BBL, two observations stand out, IAG Executive Director Benedicto Bacani said. First, the questions that are being raised in the NCR are different from those coming from the Bangsamoro territory. Second, it seems impossible to discuss Bangsamoro aspirations without constitutional issues also coming into the picture that it would look like there is a tension between these aspirations and the Constitution.


The fears that the proposed BBL may lead to the dismemberment of the country have given birth to terms like “sub-state”, “state within a state”, or “Islamic state”, all interpretative products as readers try to wrap their understanding around key concepts that sound new to them. Bacani pointed out the need to convey the real intention of the BBL behind such terms as “asymmetric”, “self-governance”, “intergovernmental relations body”, “ministerial”, “exclusive powers”, and so on. This is not going into a political debate – the arena of the GPH-MILF negotiations – but an informed reading of the key provisions of the BBL.


MILF peace panel member Abhoud Lingga’s reminder is a good start in contextualizing our interpretation of the BBL: “The Bangsamoro is a political entity that wants to implement something different for the good of the Bangsamoro people.”


That it is different does not mean it is unconstitutional. Lingga believes that the exercise of the right to self-governance, the ultimate Bangsamoro aspiration, can be fleshed out substantially without violating the Constitution. But it would be helpful if the latter is interpreted liberally, he said. “If it is not clearly prohibited in the Constitution then it is allowable. If it is not mentioned there that this is not allowed, then it is allowed.”


Iona Jalijali, head of GPH peace panel secretariat, concurred with Lingga’s view of framing the issues on the BBL within the flexibilities of the Constitution. The highest law of the land may not have the word “asymmetry” in it, but a more liberal interpretation of its provisions on autonomous regions in Article 10 might as well mean an intention to allow such.


For Jalijali, asymmetry – the name given to the special relationship between the autonomous region and the central government and also the autonomous region with respect to other regions and local governments – is the cornerstone not just of the BBL but of the CAB itself. This arrangement would produce different levels of autonomy because the people in the different political subdivisions may have different aspirations and interests and would want to deal with the central government differently. The barangays, cities and municipalities, for instance are governed by the same law – RA 7160 or the Local Government Code, but the Constitution has also provided for the creation of autonomous regions in Cordillera and Muslim Mindanao. Proponents of the BBL believe asymmetry is embedded within these provisions even without the Constitution actually naming it per se. Such interpretation makes the pitch for asymmetry valid and the BBL constitutionally sound.


Peace advocate and lawyer Suharto Ambolodto also cited the United Kingdom experience wherein three of its four constituent countries – Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales – are governed differently. Spain, another example overseas, remains one sovereign entity despite having 17 autonomous regions.


Prof. Tayao elaborated: “We can call it a sub-state, autonomous communities or regional government, but the point is that they are given authority so that may operate as a sub-state or state for that matter absent power, authority, or title of sovereignty."


Bacani mused that when taken as a description rather than a legal theory, the relationship between the ARMM and the national government now is already asymmetric. When taken to mean a political entity inferior to the central government, then the Bangsamoro is a sub-state, Jalijali said.


But whether it’s a sub-state or a regional body or whatsoever, the more important thing, according to Prof. Tayao, is that it is a proper government itself, and therefore should be given enough support and capacity to operate.


However, it should be emphasized, Jalijali said, that the Bangsamoro is not a separate state because the BBL clearly recognizes the Philippine Constitution and the power of general supervision of the President. She quelled jitters that the Bangsamoro, once enabled, is on its way to becoming a sovereign state because of the references to international laws.


“We must see these references to international laws as safeguards because here is our central government ready to grant more political autonomy to this region. It’s for the best interest of the country that we are explicit, because the Bangsamoro is being granted political and legislative powers; a lot of which have not been or may have been granted [before to the ARMM] but not exercised.” For the central government, it’s a way of looking out that “we are all clear that we will all follow these international commitments that we have.”


As to the belief that the Bangsamoro is a state within a state, Jalijali’s rebuttal is concise: What is it – a Vatican?


Another feature in the BBL that scares some people is the intergovernmental relations body, Jalijali said. “Because when some people hear intergovernmental relations they think of EU (European Union), like several states relating to each other in that kind of supranational level.”


In the Bangsamoro, however, this simply means relationships of different government units. And it’s not even a new thing, she added.


“In RA 9054 and even in the Local Government Code there are already references to intergovernmental relations…


For autonomy to work, it must rely on the very foundation of intergovernmental relations, Jalijali stressed. “I think that’s an innovation that we have in the BBL that wasn’t there before in RA 9054, that we really took time to elaborate clearly on what our intergovernmental relations would be and even have this several intergovernmental relations mechanisms by which there’s continuous engagement between the central government and the regional government, and even between the regional government and LGUs, the Bangsamoro assembly and the national Congress. This is to ensure that we can make this autonomy possible… That’s really the framework.”

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