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ARMM polls deferment key to Tokyo talks

House leaders on Tuesday said the deferment of the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was a key factor in the meeting in Tokyo between President Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chair Murad Ebrahim because it would allow Moro rebel leaders to run in the synchronized polls in May 2013.

Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong, chair of the House committee on Muslim affairs, said that with the historic meeting between a president and a Moro rebel, there was now a “60-percent chance” of reaching a peace agreement in the next 20 months before the 2013 elections.

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Loong said a peace agreement would boost the chances of MILF leaders in the ARMM polls.

“I talked to some sympathizers and supporters of the MILF, and according to them, the MILF will not occupy a government position until the peace negotiations have been finalized,” he said at the Ugnayan sa Batasan forum.

Dasmariñas City Rep. Elpidio Barzaga said that as early as Feb. 12, Murad had written Maguindanao Rep. Bai Sandra Sema of his group’s support for congressional efforts to defer the ARMM elections scheduled this month and the deferment’s positive impact on the peace talks.

“We wish to inform you that the MILF interposes no objection to the postponement of the … ARMM elections,” Murad said in a letter bearing the seal of the MILF central committee.

“Such a move could generate a better atmosphere in implementing a comprehensive agreement that might be crafted in the ongoing … peace talks. This, however, should not be construed as a departure of the MILF from its original position on the ARMM and its stand of no-participation in any political activity,” he said.

Peace and reforms

Also at the Ugnayan sa Batasan forum, Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said the government’s peace initiative was hand in hand with the President’s efforts to introduce reforms that would lead to effective and genuine autonomy in the ARMM.

Fariñas said that with new leadership that was sincere in delivering basic services and security, the ARMM would achieve the developments it had long sought.

Said Loong: “The MILF wants real autonomy, with the power to run the government except for defense and foreign affairs. If I read it correctly, they want two systems of government in one sovereign country.”

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He said the MILF would also want to expand the coverage of the ARMM to include other provinces in Mindanao with a significant Muslim population, such as Sultan Kudarat and North and South Cotabato.

But this would entail a plebiscite, and Loong said he preferred that the MILF stick with the current system rather than expand it.

“I hope the MILF will not demand something outside of the Constitution. I hope they will not ask for something the President cannot give,” he said.

Legal hurdles

Loong said that while he supported the President’s stand to keep to himself the talking points in the meeting with Murad, the public should be assured that any agreement, especially the expansion of ARMM jurisdiction, would have to be passed by Congress and approved in a plebiscite.

Fariñas, however, cautioned that the creation of a Moro substate would be challenged in the Supreme Court mainly because it was not provided for in the Constitution and was not recognized in political law.

“The Constitution only provides for the creation of an autonomous region, and that is already what they have,” he said.

Fariñas argued that the ARMM was actually a “powerful” unit in its present form but that it had been abused by past leaders.

“I think they have too much autonomy. If what we are reading about the area is true—the massacre [in Maguindanao], the stash of billions of pesos, and the private armies—they have been actually ruling with impunity. People are afraid to go to Mindanao. It looks like absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Fariñas said.

He said Mindanao’s reputation as a no man’s land began when Zaldy Ampatuan became ARMM governor. Ampatuan is now detained along with his father, brothers and other relatives in connection with the November 2009 massacre in Maguindanao.

“We are asking our peers to slow down on giving them more autonomy. They have to first show that they are deserving. If they run under the present system and do it well, we will give them the power to the level of independence that they want within our Constitution,” Fariñas said.

‘Peculiar setting’

But House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that the President’s clandestine meeting in Tokyo “set a peculiar setting” to the postponement of the ARMM elections which he and six others had formally opposed.

The high court heard oral arguments on the petitions of Lagman et al. against Republic Act No. 10153, which postponed the Aug. 8 ARMM elections to pave the way for their synchronization with the 2013 national and local elections, and the appointments of officers in charge (OICs) by the Chief Executive.

“At the moment, we are unaware of the repercussions of the meeting between the President and the MILF’s Murad Ebrahim … [We don’t know] the government’s agenda for postponing the elections and appointing OICs, the projected selection of OICs, whether partisans of MILF considered for appointment to prop up the resumption of the peace process, whether the constitutionally mandated ARMM will be expanded, restricted or supplanted by a Bangsamoro state,” Lagman told the high court in an opening statement.

“All of these are conjectures, speculation. But they provide a contemporary setting for the instant petitions,” he said.

Former University of the Philippines law dean Pacifico Agabin and former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also argued that RA 10153 violated the Constitution in the three-and-a-half-hour full-court session.

‘Compact’

Lagman stressed that “reforms [in the ARMM] can be instituted without infringing on the Constitution and the emancipation of the ARMM.”

“The best of motives cannot justify the transgression of the fundamental law,” he said.

Lagman and Agabin also said amendments in RA 9054, the Organic Act of the ARMM, should undergo a plebiscite.

Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro asked Agabin if he considered the Organic Act a “compact” between the ARMM and the legislative department, such that any change in the rules “should go back to the people to be effective and binding.”

Agabin said the metaphor of the compact was “very appropriate.” He said RA 9054 contained a preamble saying “that this is an act of the people of ARMM passed through Congress.”

Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno grilled Agabin briefly, compelling him to enumerate which among the provisions in the Organic Act was amended by RA 10153.

Agabin cited Sections 2 and 7, which specified that the elections would be held every second Monday of September and that the elected officials will hold the position for three years, respectively.

Sereno said that there had in fact been several postponements of the ARMM elections, through amendments made in the Organic Act, but that nobody questioned these.

Asked by Sereno if he was willing to draw the “fine line” between the different lengths of postponements, Agabin said: “I am drawing a fine line between a few months and a few years. You may look at it as a matter of degree. Two years is so long, amounting to a deprivation of the people’s right of suffrage.”

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TAGS: Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), chair of the House committee on Muslim affairs, May 2013 polls, MILF chair Murad Ebrahim, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Peace Talks, President Benigno Aquino III, Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong
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