Clock is ticking on draft Bangsamoro law

MANILA, Philippines – With less than two weeks left before Congress adjourns its 1st regular session, the draft law creating the Bangsamoro political entity remains stuck in Malacañang for review – making the target to pass the law in 2014 harder to beat. 

It has been more than a month since the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) submitted the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, but Malacañang could not give a clear commitment on whether it could finish the review in time. 

Asked about the prospects of submitting the Bangsamoro bill to Congress by Wednesday, June 11, Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters Monday, June 2, he would have to ask Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, whose office is overseeing the review, for the answer.

Asked the same question, government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer, who attended a hearing on the proposed Bangsamoro waters at the House of Representatives on the same day, said beating the deadline would depend on certain factors. 

"The President will have to read it through and, you know, the President reads everything. He might have questions that would have to be cleared with him," Ferrer said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

"And then there's the dialogue with BTC and chairman (Mohagher) Iqbal is travelling. He's leaving, next week for, I think, Jeddah. They have a meeting with the OIC. There are considerations such as this. What's good here is the basic law is being fixed and being cleaned up." Ferrer said. 

When Congress adjourns sine die on June 13, lawmakers won't be returning to work until a month later for the State of the Nation Address of President Benigno Aquino III, which marks the official start of the 2nd regular session. 

Should Malacañang be able to submit the Bangsamoro bill before then, lawmakers can call for committee hearings even during the break. 

The Bangsamoro Basic Law will serve as the legal framework for the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity, which is envisioned to enjoy greater political and fiscal powers than the region it will replace – the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). 

It is the product of the final peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). (INFOGRAPHIC: Bangsamoro peace deal at a glance)

Both President Aquino and the MILF want the law to be passed before 2014 to give the MILF-led transitional body at least one year to lead the transition from the ARMM towards the Bangsamoro before the 2016 general elections. 

What's taking the review so long? 

The contents of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law were not released to the public when the document was submitted to the Office of the President for review. 

But this early, some quarters, incuding Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and the Philippine Constitution Association, have questioned the constitutionality not just of the peace agreement itself but also of what was signed before it on March 27 – the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Since the start of negotiations, Aquino has made it clear that he wants a political resolution to the decades-long conflict in Mindanao that is constitutional. 

Amid concerns regarding the legality of the proposed Bangsamoro region, the MILF has called on Malacañang not to "water down" the BTC version of the proposed law. 

But Ferrer said the Malacañang-approved draft, which will be stamped by the President as an urgent bill, will have the "necessary refinements."

"But of course, the idea is to retain as much as possible, one, conformity with the comprehensive agreement, and secondly, the details that they provided which were not specified in the agreement, if there are no legal issues, as much as possible will be considered but this will have to be studied," Ferrer said. 

"That's why the review is not that easy especially for the lawyers who are looking at the whole draft now. After the negotiations, we only talked about this in parts. But now, it is complete. That's why it takes time for them also to really review every part to make sure that we don't encounter problems in the future," Ferrer said. 

Ferrer said the concerned parties, including the Palace legal team, the peace panels, and the BTC have arranged set dates for discussions on the draft. 

With differing positions between the MILF and the government regarding how the Bangsamoro bill should be treated, how are issues on potentially problematic provisions being resolved? 

Ferrer said: "We discuss it with them. There are categories. Constitutional issues would have to be threshed out. Others are policy issues. If it's a policy issue, then of course, it goes up to the President. Others are new ideas that are coming. If they are very innovative, why not? That is the approach here," Ferrer said. 

Asked regarding concerns that such a review process may have turned into an extension of the negotiating table, Ferrer said that the dynamics between the Palace, the MILF, the panels and the BTC is not adversary. 

"The relationship is very congenial and there are people who have been assigned to see this through so this will move," Ferrer said.

The Malacañang-approved version of the basic law will be released once the bill is submitted in Congress for deliberations. Ferrer said the parties decided not to release the BTC draft to prevent confusion. 

"We don't want conflict over different versions that would come out, so, at the very least, when it comes out, that's the one that already went through the review process and that's the working draft even for Congress," Ferrer said. - Rappler.com