Miriam: Start peace process all over again

MANILA, Philippines – “Houston, we have a problem."

These were the words that Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago regarding the Bangsamoro Basic Law. She said the obstacle is not the timeframe for passing the bill but what she believes to be its unconstitutionality.

The constitutional expert urged the Philippine government to restart peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), predicting that the Supreme Court will declare the Bangsamoro bill, known as the BBL, unconstitutional.

“Whether or not Congress passes the BBL, the matter ends up in the Supreme Court so there is no point attacking people like me just because we say it’s unconstitutional. We have to stop talking of negotiating the Constitution. That is heresy. The Constitution is supreme,” Santiago said in a press briefing on March 5, Thursday.

“This constitutional problem will prove to be the undoing of the BBL,” she added.

Santiago is the chairperson of the Senate constitutional amendments committee, one of the panels tackling the bill. The BBL is a key part of the government’s peace process with the MILF, and aims to create an expanded region in Muslim Mindanao with more power and resources to help end 4 decades of conflict and poverty. (Read the full text of the bill here)

While many of her fellow lawmakers are concerned about the June deadline of passing the bill following the Mamasapano clash, Santiago reiterated that the issue is the legality of the measure. The senator questioned the legality of the bill even before the deadly January 25 clash between elite cops and Moro rebels threatened the measure.

She said that there are two points that make the BBL unconstitutional:

“It is absolutely ridiculous, it’s a stinker in constitutional law for another party in a non-international armed conflict to insist that certain constitutional provisions must be negotiated. That is the height of hallucination. Nananaginip sila (They are dreaming),” she said in reference to the MILF. 

On her first point, Santiago said the government peace panel does not have authority from Congress to negotiate. She said that from the start, the President should have informed Congress, particularly the Senate, of his instructions to the panel, and the conditions for the negotiations.

The senator said that the peace process is a matter of foreign policy, even if the MILF is not a foreign group. She did not address reporters’ questions about this.

“Foreign policy power is divided between the President and Congress. Where is the Senate’s authority to conduct this peace process? It does not have an instrument of that nature. [The President] just assumed he has that power but he does not. If in treaties, you already need the concurrence of the Senate, what more in creating a substate?”

Santiago also said that the power of the MILF to represent Moros is unclear.

“Among all the scions of the breakaway groups: MNLF, MILF, BIFF and others, which one of them shall be validly allowed to claim that it represents the Bangsamoro or the entire Islamic peoples within Philippine territory? The moment the BBL passes, there will be internal war among those claiming to be leaders of Bangsamoro.”

The senator’s comments come after the mission to arrest top terrorists in Mamasapano, Maguindanao ended in an encounter that killed 44 elite cops, 18 MILF members, and 3 civilians.

The incident raised doubts about the sincerity of the MILF, sparked public outrage, and prompted lawmakers to withdraw support for the measure.

‘Palace must create review panel’

While Congress can still deliberate on and amend the bill, Santiago said the Palace should already form a group of legal experts to review the measure “to avoid embarrassment of being dictated to by another branch of government.”

“It would be best if Malacañang formed its own review committee to review the BBL for unconstitutional features, instead of letting other branches of government do it. The worst branch of government to interview for this purpose is the judiciary because it has the power to enforce its decision. In the Senate, we merely express our opinions of how we read the Constitution,” she said.

The former trial court judge maintained that the bill creates a substate because it gives the proposed parliamentary Bangsamoro government “certain powers exclusive only to them.”

In a previous letter to Santiago, government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said that the bill creates an autonomous region, which the Constitution allows. (READ: Understanding the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement)

“You will not find the word substate in any of documents. What you have are the features of the autonomous region, all of these are guided by the powers under the Constitution," Ferrer said in a letter in April 2014. 

‘Peace is not equal to BBL’

Santiago is just one of the senators opposing the BBL. Initial co-authors Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and JV Ejercito withdrew support for the bill after the Mamasapano encounter, removing the majority 13 votes needed to pass the measure. Co-author Senator Francis Escudero also recently became critical of the measure.

Santiago said that to equate peace to the bill is “wrong.”

She rejected the MILF statement that lawmakers can negotiate, but not dictate the terms of the BBL. “Statements [like that] are not useful. In fact, they are not intelligent.” 

The senator said that if the peace panels and peace advocates truly want the bill passed, they must address issues of constitutionality.

“That is our big problem. It’s like facing the blank face of a mountain like the Alps or the Tibetan Mountains. First you have to climb that. It’s not a question of whether I want it to be constitutional or not. That personal moral choice is beyond me. When I read the Constitution according to how I was educated, I must make up my mind. I cannot negotiate, not even a single word.” – Rappler.com