Peace panel: Traitors or protecting gov’t?

MANILA, Philippines – Another co-author of the Bangsamoro bill now doubts the measure, and even calls for the removal of the government peace negotiators in the wake of the Mamasapano clash.

Senator Francis Escudero joined Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano in urging President Benigno Aquino III to replace presidential peace adviser Teresita Quintos Deles, peace panel chairperson Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, and other peace negotiators.

Like Cayetano, Escudero accused the government negotiators of “siding” with the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the peace talks.

’Di nila ginagawa ang kanilang trabaho at dapat palitan sila ng mga taong kayang gawin ang kanilang trabaho. Paano ang kumpiyansa ng ating mga tao? Ipakita naman nilang kakampi nila ang SAF 44, ang gobyerno at ang pulis,” Escudero said in a press briefing on Thursday, February 26.

(They are not doing their job, and they should be replaced by people who can do their job. What about the confidence of our people? They should show they are siding with the SAF 44, the government, and the police.)

Earlier this week, Cayetano called on Aquino to fire Deles and Ferrer for acting like “the spokespersons, lawyers and campaign managers” of the MILF.

Deles and Ferrer are hard pressed to defend the peace process after the January 25 clash in Maguindanao killed 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers, 18 MILF members, and 3 civilians. The incident raised questions about the sincerity of the MILF in the peace process, and threatens to derail the peace talks.

Senate President Franklin Drilon defended the peace negotiators, saying they are tasked to secure peace in Mindanao, “and their actions before and after the Mamasapano incident are based on their mandates.”

“It is highly unfair and improper for people to label as traitors those striving to ensure peace in our nation, for all Filipinos," said the staunch administration ally.

“Contrary to [the] accusation, our peace panel is actually protecting the government and the Filipino people’s interest by protecting and continuing the peace process amid the tensions resulting from the Mamasapano clash,” said Drilon.

The Senate chief asked his colleagues and the public “not to be too hard” on Deles and Ferrer, and to understand the role of the peace panel in ensuring peace in Mindanao, “which for 4 decades suffered from all forms of insurgency and criminality.” 

“While I fully understand and recognize the public's high emotions following the Mamasapano tragedy, Secretary Teresita Deles and Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer do not deserve to be maligned in such an unwarranted manner," Drilon said.

'What does gov't get from BBL?'

Escudero said that unlike Cayetano, he is not withdrawing his co-authorship of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which aims to create an expanded region in Muslim Mindanao with more powers and resources than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The passage of the bill is a key step in the peace process.

Yet Escudero uses the same tone and lines of Cayetano, who evolved to becoming the strongest critic of the BBL.

The Senate finance committee chairperson said that the bill allots at least P75 billion ($1.7 billion) to the proposed Bangsamoro region, an amount bigger than the budget of the Philippine National Police (PNP), and almost the equivalent of the budget of the military.

“To be honest, the MILF panel is so good. They got all they wanted. What will the government get in return? The MILF forces are still holding arms. They will just give up old firearms, and hide their new ones,” Escudero said in Filipino.

Under the peace process, the MILF is supposed to turn over its firearms after the passage of the BBL, a gradual phase called “decommissioning.”

Escudero is also sore about the issue of coordination. The MILF and government peace panels insist that had the SAF only followed proper coordination mechanisms, the heavy death toll could have been avoided. No clash occurred since 2011 because of coordination with the MILF.

“The BBL mentions coordination 26 times,” Escudero said. “If there is no coordination, they have the license to impose a death penalty on our troops? They already do that now without the BBL, what more when the BBL is passed?”

The bill was initially meant to be passed by March but the Mamasapano clash moved back the target to June.

Escudero said even the new deadline will not be met. He vowed to actively participate in the hearings, pointing out what he felt were questionable provisions.

“The BBL says the decision of the Shari’ah Court is final and executory. Is that in line with our Constitution, which says the Supreme Court is the final arbiter?”

“The Judicial and Bar Council that will be created for the Bangsamoro has the power to discipline judges. In our Constitution, that power lies with the Supreme Court. These are just some of the things we need to study and should pass through the eye of a needle,” he added.

‘Invest in Mindanao, instead of BBL’

Senator JV Ejercito is the other senator besides Cayetano who withdrew his co-authorship of the bill. Their flip-flopping reduced the majority 13 votes in the Senate to just 11.

Ejercito said on Thursday that opposing the BBL should not be seen as being against peace. The senator is the son of former President Joseph Estrada who declared an all out war against the MILF in 2000.

Ejercito said his alternative to the BBL is to increase funding for Muslim Mindanao.

“I believe that by investing a significant portion of government funds to Mindanao public infrastructure – airports, ports, roads, railroads, schools, and universities – we will be able to alleviate poverty, and this could the most effective way to attain peace,” the neophyte senator said.

The peace panels said that the bill is the best option for peace, and that the MILF is the most moderate Muslim group to negotiate with as the rest are terrorist and lawless elements. This is the closest the government and the MILF reached in concluding the peace talks in 17 years. 

Negotiators maintain that the peace process must be completed before Aquino steps down in 2016. 

Ejercito believes otherwise. “If the Aquino administration failed to have it during its term, we can continue the effort with the next Philippine president.” – Rappler.com