This week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino outlined details of a plan to establish an autonomous area in the Southern Philippines for Muslims and indigenous communities.
The proposed bill, known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), is the most concrete step since the government signed the 2012 peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the leading separatist group in Mindanao.
There was much hope at the time, but talks quickly got bogged down, most notably over who would profit from natural resources and taxation in the newly-formed region. That issue, and others, are addressed in the current draft bill, which despite criticism, has received support from some key officials.
“This law is for the children who wish to run across school grounds instead of running for their lives,” Mujiv S. Hataman, governor of the semi-autonomus region, said in a statement posted on Facebook Wednesday. “This law is for families who want to put life into the earth through crops and produce, no longer to dig graves for their fathers and sons who have fallen in war.”
President Aquino acknowledged that economic development in the region has lagged behind other parts of the country, in his address.
“Kaya naman gusto nating bigyan ng pantay na pagkakataon ang lahat, lalong-lalo na ang mga nasa laylayan, upang mabigyan sila ng kakayahang makiambag sa pag-angat ng bansa,” he said in Tagalog.
A few key points in the current draft bill. It will:
— Establish a local self-government system, which will include law enforcement
— Retain locally most tax revenue from natural resources in the region
— Set up an area of land that will include the region now known as ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao); Cotabato and Isabela; and other municipalities that voted in 2001 to be included in the region
–Set up a way in which other areas could join the region. Voters in Mindanao where at least 10 percent of the registered voters ask for inclusion at least two months before ratification of the deal could be included.
Here’s an excerpt from the preamble to the draft bill:
“We, the Bangsamoro people and other inhabitants of the Bangsamoro, imploring the aid of the Almighty, aspiring to establish an enduring peace on the basis of justice in our communities and a justly balanced society, and asserting our right to conserve and develop our patrimony…do hereby ordain and promulgate this Bangsamoro Basic Law.”
Importantly, the draft text also includes this line:
“The freedom of choice of other indigenous peoples shall be respected.”
This is a point of contention for some indigenous communities in the area, whose traditions predate the arrival of Islam in the Southern Philippines and who are often caught up in the conflict between separatist forces and the federal government.
Other issues still remain before implementation can take hold. It’s still unclear what the effect will be on militant groups, such as Abu Sayyaf, who are not part of the deal and who continue to exert control and launch attacks from their base in Basilan. Also, local residents continue to raise concern about government-backed violence. Last month, 118 families belonging to the Manobo tribe were displaced from their homes from fighting. Local missionaries blamed paramilitary groups operating in the area.
As for the Bangsamoro Basic Law, it now goes to Congress where some lawmakers have already raised concern over the constitutionality of the plan. Expect a debate, and changes, before it gets closer to becoming law.