I took Sonny Coloma’s challenge and read House Bill No. 4994 or the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law today. I found it a worthwhile exercise. Now at least I know firsthand what to complain about; but – full disclosure – I also know now what to commend.
Let me begin with the good.
I like the sections on social justice, the defense of the rights of women and children, and the grant of equal protection and opportunity to the peoples of the region. I agree with the preservation of the indigenous culture and history, and the economic development of the Bangsamoro Territory for the welfare of its long-downtrodden populace.
These bring the people closer to realizing their aspirations for respect, recognition, justice, and ultimately, peace. In their shoes, I would want the same. I can objectively say these sections lend hope. With careful tweaking, these can be integrated into the final version of the BBL to benefit not only the Bangsamoro but all of us, one day.
Yet let me be candid. There is a great deal in the BBL in its current form that is unacceptable.
We have heard much from Reps. Rufus Rodriguez and Celso Lobregat and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago about its patent unconstitutionality. Sen. Ralph Recto spoke first and loudest about the whopping P75 billion that the BBL promises the Bangsamoro government annually. (Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has decried the latter as a “trending lie,” according to an Inquirer headline. But Rodriguez countered by saying, look at the law and do the math. It adds up all right.)  There’s no need to go into those details here. I am very grateful that these legislators are being thoroughly vigilant and have started the winnowing process. Let’s pray they finish as they began.
Besides these fishy provisions, what makes the proposed BBL dubious is that the envisioned Bangsamoro Transitional Authority involves the MILF, and only them.
This scenario gives rise to many questions, not the least of which is, As the BTA, can the MILF guarantee peace by effectively controlling the secessionists and other armed groups in the region? Mohagher Iqbal famously put the cart before the horse when he told the Senate Committee on Public Order that the answer would be evident upon the MILF’s installation. That’s a pretty glib reply, sir, but it’s not good enough.
As I write this, various media report that Maguindanao is officially in a state of calamity and that over 8,000 families – 46,900 individuals – have had to flee their homes due to clashes between the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Armed Forces in North Cotabato and Maguindanao. Combat began on Valentine’s Day between the BIFF and a unit of the MILF and quickly escalated, necessitating the intervention of the Army. AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang likes to call this an “all-out offensive” against the renegades. While our soldiers fought to free sitios in Pikit, the malignant BIFF retreated, burning houses as they went.
Meanwhile, a new breakaway group ungrammatically named the Justice for Islamic Movement has surfaced and has been identified by the AFP as the coddlers of fugitive Basit Usman. They fight the BIFF and the AFP; the BIFF fights the MILF, the JIM, and the AFP; the AFP fights them all, except for the MILF which is now playing nice and helping the AFP in this campaign.
There is no religion involved in these clashes. The latest round of fighting was purportedly caused by a rido (a land dispute) between the BIFF and an MILF commander – and most of the fighters are relatives, mind you. The JIM and the BIFF leaders are also related, it is said. So let us be clear that these killings are not for lofty ideology or jihad. This is simply about acreage; it is as base and simple as that. While these various groups tussle over acronyms and territory, the evacuees linger in makeshift shelters, wondering if they will ever be able to return home.
For many of them, home no longer exists. They call themselves “bakwit,” a pidginized form of “evacuate” and a wry description of their plight. It is such a regular occurence for them, they’ve given themselves a nickname. Currently, 1,600 bakwits are ill in the refugee centers, downed by various communicable diseases such as fever, cough, skin rashes, and diarrhea. Potable water is limited; food and other supplies are too. The bakwits also suffer from uncertainty, anxiety, and various forms of trauma. Who drove them from their homes; who overran their farms; who scattered their livestock and confiscated their livelihood? The fighting men who “love” the land. To these warriors, people and homes, what do they matter?
This is the face of rebellion in the Bangsamoro. Can the MILF control it? Can the MILF effectively police the region? Are we willing to invest P1 billion in the BTA to find out?
For this and other reasons, I was set against the BBL for a long time. But I read it and wrestled against my ignorance and biases today to try and see the good in it. I did it not to prove President BS Aquino right, nor to vindicate Sec. Ging Deles and her cohort Coronel-Ferrer, nor because Chairman Iqbal has charmed me. I did it because the bakwits need to go home.
Since the Mamasapano tragedy emotions have run rampant and now threaten to envelop us in a haze of anger and suspicion. Those leery of the BBL have been charged with religious bigotry and warmongering, though for many of us religion is not the issue and war was never an option. Conversely, those pushing the BBL have been suspected of mollycoddling the “enemy,” though it is possible they were merely showing empathy to a beleaguered sector. The hawks have squawked, “all-out war!” The doves have cooed, “all-out peace!” None of this is right.
In the midst of this tumult are the bakwits, ordinary folks leading quiet lives who were evicted from safety and now huddle in squalor. We ought to get our act together for them.
I will be the last to call for the passage of the BBL as it stands. It is a defective bill; it must be cured. But surely, we can allow reason to rule and bring ourselves to eventually support sound legislation that will usher in calmness in Mindanao. One day.
Much misunderstanding has been generated by a severe lack of information. Most of us in Luzon and the Visayas are unacquainted with the history of the Moros and the other indigenous people of Mindanao. It was the government’s job to fill in the gaps. It was in Aquino’s interest to make us aware of the resurgent peace process; it was the peace panel’s task to educate and apprise us of developments; it was their joint responsibility to enjoin our participation. They failed in this; they kept us out of the loop; they have lost our trust. Now they are acting like petulant children whose toy is being taken from them. For this and more, they are accountable.
The people of Luzon and the Visayas have been told, This isn’t your war. Sadly, it is our war. It is all our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers who for over forty years have been fighting – dying! – in the mountains and marshes of Mindanao. This problem, it is ours. We are all Filipinos. The Moros. The Lumads. And most definitely, the bakwits too. We have been caught in the vortex of a protracted struggle which it is in our joint interest to arrest.
I do not know if our first steps to peace should indeed be taken with the MILF. What I do know is this: if they lay down their arms, and if they convince their militant kin to do the same; if they realize that peace begins when the shooting stops, and they consequently take that initiative with no strings attached – only then will they begin to earn my reluctant trust.
 Interviewed by Arnold Clavio on DZBB, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez broke down the allocations and assigned figures to them (based on official statistics), demonstrating that the BBL does grant roughly P75 billion annually to the Bangsamoro Government.