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BBL ‘will not be passed untouched’

The draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is not going to leave Congress unchanged, especially after the Mamasapano incident that has raised concerns over the powers that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would have, according to Sen. Francis Escudero.

Peace negotiators have expressed fears that Congress might dilute the BBL as a result of the killing of 44 elite police commandos in a clash with Moro rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, on Jan. 25.

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But Senate President Franklin Drilon said on Thursday that “dilution” was “not the correct term.”

“We have to modify and look at each provision carefully,” Drilon told reporters. “It will not be passed untouched.”

Sen. Francis Escudero. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Sen. Francis Escudero. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Escudero remains a coauthor of the BBL, but told reporters on Thursday that the draft law would have to go through much debate and discussion and that the MILF and the government peace panels have much to explain.

Escudero added his voice to those castigating and calling for the replacement of the government’s peace negotiators for supposedly siding with the MILF, unless they start speaking up for the government.

Congress has suspended deliberations on the draft BBL amid widespread public anger over the tragedy that ended the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) counterterrorism operation to capture Jemaah Islamiyah bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as “Marwan,” and his Filipino lieutenant, Basit Usman.

The SAF commandos killed Marwan, but lost 44 of their own in clashes with guerrillas from the MILF and its splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), on their way out of Mamasapano.

Eighteen MILF guerrillas and five civilians were also killed in the daylong gun battle.

Coordination

Escudero said he was concerned about some of the draft law’s provisions. He said he had noted that the term “coordination” was referenced 26 times in the articles and sections of the bill.

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He contended that the government’s lack of coordination with the MILF during an operation has ended in the “death penalty” for government troopers more than once, and pointed to an incident in Al-Barka, Basilan province, where 11 Marines were beheaded in a clash on July 10, 2007.

A government probe found that the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, not the MILF, was behind the incident.

“What is this, if there is again no coordination they would have a license to do that? Now that there is no BBL yet, they are already doing that. What more if they are already ruling over the area?” Escudero said.

The provisions for coordination have to be defined properly, “in order to understand it in the context that we understand it,” he added.

Final say on cases

Escudero said the proposed BBL also had a provision stating that the Sharia High Court’s decision would be final, and he asked whether this was acceptable to the Supreme Court, which, under the Constitution, has the final say on cases.

He also noted that under the bill, the new Bangsamoro region would get at least P75 billion on top of internal revenue allotments, and other funds allotted for schools and projects. This is bigger than the funds going to the police and nearly as big as the funds going to the military, he added.

What would the government get in return? He asked.

On the disarmament of the MILF, Escudero said he wondered whether the group would really give up its arms or surrender only its inferior weapons and keep the superior ones.

Escudero said the Mamasapano incident opened the eyes of many to the contents of the draft BBL and put it in perspective, and that is something for which to thank the slain SAF commandos.

“If the Mamasapano incident did not take place, we would probably have passed this without much ado, without anybody noticing its provisions, and we would wake up to a very big problem brewing in that part of the country,” he said.

Escudero also said that while it was the President’s right to ask that the BBL not be watered down, it was Congress’ job to review and revise it if necessary.

Right to scrutinize BBL

Drilon said the senators, as elected representatives of the people, had the right to scrutinize the draft law.

He said the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp) was open to discussions of the bill’s provisions and that the MILF recognized the fact that the measure would not be left unchanged.

“It is not correct that it is the position of the Opapp that we should not touch the BBL. They know we have the power to scrutinize it, and ensure it complies with the Constitution,” Drilon said.

Asked which provisions were unconstitutional, Drilon replied: “We will discuss that in the course of the committee hearings and the plenary debates.”

At a Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident on Feb. 12, Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator, said his group would accept a version of the BBL that was not watered down.

He said the MILF would support the process even if it lost the regional elections coinciding with the May 2016 national elections.

Given the tight schedule for passing the BBL by March, Drilon said he had proposed a new date: the end of the second regular session of the 16th Congress in mid-June.

“Realistically, we can’t pass it in March, so June is our new target,” he said.

Until the Mamasapano tragedy, Congress had been aiming to pass the BBL by March to allow a longer transition period before the new Bangsamoro officials are elected in May 2016.

Different subjects

Sen. JV Ejercito said the BBL should not be equated with the peace efforts in Mindanao because the two were different subjects.

“There is no proof that after the passage of the BBL, we would attain lasting peace in Mindanao. We have to realize that aside from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, there are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf and numerous private armed groups. These exclude the growing number of New People’s Army fighters in Mindanao,” Ejercito said in a statement.

He warned that the BBL may go the same way as the government’s peace agreement with another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Ejercito said he remained in favor of peace, but this should be based on justice and the 1987 Constitution. If the BBL is true to the Constitution, he would be open to the bill’s approval, he added.

As for other options for attaining peace in Mindanao, Ejercito said infusing more government funds into the area to develop its infrastructure would deal with poverty, one of the conditions that breed rebels.

“Let us always remember that war and rebellion came from the womb of poverty and social injustice. Peace can be attained with real economic growth being enjoyed by less fortunate Filipino families, both Muslims and Christians,” he said.

New negotiators

Escudero said the government peace negotiators should have taken umbrage at the the MILF statement that its investigation report on the Mamasapano incident would be given first to Malaysia, the third-party negotiator in the peace talks.

“This is another example where the government negotiators are not acting or defending the government and instead siding with the MILF,” he said.

Escudero also said he had long been calling for the replacement of the peace panel and the appointment of new people who could do the job.

He said the people were looking for “righteous indignation” over the Mamasapano incident, and the peace panel should show this.

He made it clear, however, that he was not calling for the panel to pick a fight with the MILF. What he wants, he said, is for the panel’s members to show that they are siding with the government, the police and the military.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Basic Law, Basit Usman, BBL, Congress, Franklin Drilon, Jemaah Islamiyah, Maguindanao province, Mamasapano, Marwan, Philippine National Police-Special Action Force, SAF counterterrorism operation, Sen. Francis Escudero, Zulkifli bin Hir
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