The chief government negotiator on Tuesday sought to ease fears that the creation of a new autonomous Muslim homeland in Mindanao could lead to the rise of an Islamic state within the Philippines.
Marvic Leonen, head of the government panel negotiating peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said at a briefing for Philippine Daily Inquirer editors and reporters that the creation of Bangsamoro would respect the “separation of Church and State.”
President Benigno Aquino on Sunday announced a preliminary agreement between the government and the MILF to end a decades-long Muslim insurgency in Mindanao with the establishment of Bangsamoro, which would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The establishment of Bangsamoro would also mean recognition of the Moro identity, said the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles.
Following the announcement of the preliminary agreement on Sunday, she said, a group of Bangsamoro proposed a campaign called “Bangsamoro Ako, Filipino.”
“It is a way to promote the Moro identity as part of the Filipino,” Deles said, adding that she had told the group to proceed with the campaign.
The framework agreement will be signed in Malacañang on Oct. 15. Once the agreement is signed, Leonen said, the Moros begin to win recognition of their identity as Bangsamoro.
Under the agreement, considered Bangsamoro are “those who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, including Palawan, and their descendants, whether of mixed or of full blood.”
“To the Philippine government, these are symbolisms, befitting their history. The history of their forebears,” Leonen said.
The announcement did not sit well with Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996.
Misuari, the first governor of ARMM, said the government’s deal with the MILF was illegal, as there was already the 1996 accord.
He said the MNLF could sue the government in the International Court of Justice. And he issued a veiled threat against the government, saying the MNLF was “still alive and kicking.”
At a briefing for the Inquirer, Deles said the MNLF would not be left out in the establishment of Bangsamoro.
The government and the MILF will give the MNLF seats in the Transition Commission on the creation of the new autonomous region, Deles said.
The MILF, Deles added, is willing to work with the MNLF in bringing peace to war-torn Mindanao.
SC still supreme
The Transition Commission will draft the basic law that would create Bangsamoro. The commission will submit the draft of the basic law to Congress for legislation.
Leonen said that while Sharia, or Islamic law, would cover Muslims in Bangsamoro, any law or regulation to be adopted by the region would respect the basic rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution.
Leonen said any attempt to impose controversial practices—like stoning to death for adultery or forcing women to wear burkas—similar to those in conservative Islamic countries, could be challenged in the Supreme Court in Manila.
“There is separation of Church and State … Based on the Constitution of the Republic, it is the Supreme Court [that] will have the final say if a punishment is cruel or unusual, or if [a rule or policy] violates equal protection under the law, freedom of expression, or the nonestablishment clause,” Leonen said.
“There are rights guaranteed by the Constitution and we would be among the first to object if these are violated,” he added.
Leonen said the Office of the President and constitutional bodies like the Commission on Audit (COA) would also retain their oversight functions in the running of Bangsamoro.
“That was not bargained away … the Supreme Court, COA, the Commission on Elections will have their say,” he said.
When asked what role Sharia would play in Bangsamoro, Leonen replied: “Shariah will govern Muslims … If you’re a Muslim and you marry another Muslim, you’re not under the Civil Code but under Muslim law. That’s already the existing system.”
He went on: “They can expand (the coverage of) Sharia, maybe the dowry system, but it should be consistent with the Constitution. There are so many pieces of legislation that are applicable to Sharia and are consistent with the Constitution, like those on personal and family relations, inheritance, succession.”
Leonen emphasized that Filipino Muslims are “moderates” and do not follow harsh and ultraconservative interpretations of Sharia.
“I have talked to ustadzes [Islamic teachers] and [learned that] there are many ways that Islam is interpreted. So, the Muslim world is very broad, but [Muslims] also believe in one book,” Leonen said.
He also said that the government would leave it up to the private sector to fund Islamic religious schools, or madaris.
“There is separation of Church and State and the state regulates education. But [the Department of Education] will have to be culturally sensitive on what they will allow [these schools] to teach,” Leonen said.
Tripoli agreement not treaty
The government peace panel appeared to be avoiding a controversy with Misuari.
Deles refrained from commenting on Misuari’s charge that the MILF deal is illegal.
Leonen, however, disagreed with Misuari’s view that the MNLF deal was “internationally recognized.”
“It is not a treaty,” Leonen said.
The MNLF was “not a state” when it negotiated with the government, he said.
“We know they’re alive,” Deles said, referring to Misuari’s veiled threat. “I am the one talking with them. It is our intention to fix the problems and ensure that [they will be in the new political entity].”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Deles said the government panel consulted the MNLF through Indonesia, the facilitator of the talks with Misuari’s group.
“We have sent the message that we intend the process of making the new law inclusive, that they will have representation in the Transition Commission, an intent that we have communicated to the MILF as well,” Deles said.
Help from OIC
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), where the MNLF has observer status, had convened MNLF and MILF leaders to “push for unity and coordination.”
He did not say, however, when and where the meeting took place.
Deles said Misuari and the faction of the MNLF led by Muslimin Sema had long wanted to amend Republic Act No. 9054, the law that fleshed out the peace deal with the MNLF.
The government had agreed to amend the law, Deles added.
The Aquino administration and the MNLF have been conducting an “implementation review” of the 1996 accord, “but the MILF process has caught up with it,” Deles said.
As for the Tripoli Agreement that the MNLF signed with the Marcos administration in 1976, Deles said all of its provisions had already been implemented through the 1996 peace accord.
Once the Bangsamoro basic law is passed, the ARMM will be abolished and the new law will supersede the 1996 peace agreement, Deles said. With a report from Nikko Dizon