An exit agreement in BARMM before 2025?

THE peace process for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was settled in 2017 with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (Republic Act [RA] 11054 or BOL) and the plebiscite in 2019. Then RA 11593 extended the transition to 2025.

We are left with the implementation of the law and the transition has taken four years with the first elections deferred to 2025. A new Bangsamoro Transition Authority has been selected and appointed, supposedly representing a better selection (MILF, Murad and Salamat Wing, MNLF, Misuari and Sema groups and the family alliances) but that remains to be seen in terms of the BARMM 2023 budget and the passage of two critical pieces of legislation to ensure an election in May 2025: the Local Government Code and the Elections Code. Both drafts have already been presented to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Why peace adviser still?

The reappointment of the presidential adviser on peace, reconciliation and unity (Opapru) under the Office of the President was made last October 18. Again, peace should not be subjected to bureaucratic controls since the Bangsamoro organic law already provided for the National Government-Bangsamoro Government Intergovernmental Relations Body (IGRB) and other IGR mechanisms to coordinate and resolve pressing issues through regular consultation and continuing negotiation. The IGR is the body that should deal directly with BARMM and not the Opapru since clearly under the Annex on power sharing of the CAB, the IGR was formed to govern the asymmetrical relationship between the national and the Bangsamoro governments.

The presidential adviser on the peace process, who heads the Opapru, is just that, an adviser. As such, Opapru should be dissolved and a minimum staff support should be made to the adviser since they do not do line functions at all. It becomes problematic when instead of being an adviser, decision-making is supplanted by the leanings of the presidential adviser, especially when it comes to whom to favor, how to roll out the peace agreements, and "dictate" the processes by which BARMM will evolve. It should complete the normalization track by speeding up decommissioning in 2023 so that by the filing date in October 2024, all these issues have been dealt with.

Last week, the Institute of Autonomy and Governance formed and met with its panel of experts from Mindanao State University, the Local Government Development Institute and independent consultants on Bill 30 (Local Governance Code) and Bill 29 (Electoral Code). It was a day and a half of grinding debate on what was, what is and what BARMM can be, but everything viewed by a unique position: BARMM has a parliamentary form of government and not presidential; it aspires to full autonomy and not just decentralization.

In all the debates, all the experts agreed that BARMM is a model for other peace processes to investigate, not just in the region but globally. Thus, the model should not be allowed to wither away because of some vested interests eyeing a percentage of the block grant or prolonging the transition by reviving armed groups in Mindanao and the sprouting of camps in certain local governments in BARMM.

Clashing frameworks

The discussion recognized the clash of frameworks, the major point of which was the right to self-determination (RSG) versus rule of law (compliant to CAB and BOL). When you talk of RSG, invariably mention would be made of six provinces, three cities, 116 municipalities, 2,590 barangay or villages and the most challenging of which was the special geographic area made up of 43 barangays. And of contiguous areas (Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao del Sur and Maguindanao del Norte) in the mainland and island provinces, known as Basulta.

We were often reminded why peace processes fail and these reasons were: not inclusive enough, legitimacy of key actors is weak and not transformative enough. That we needed to wear the lens and embrace parliamentarism than that of presidential, especially for the Electoral Code. Individual advocacies needed to conform with the BARMM perspectives and that detailed comments can see the better part of the day and instead agree more on basic frameworks.

A key concern was the use of PCOS and the hope that the BARMM parliament can consider the 12 years of learning from PCOS to Smartmatic in five election cycles. The hope is to have a homegrown technology that allows for a hybrid system to protect the sanctity of the ballot.

Issues considered were implications on power structures and relations in the BARMM, political competition between the rebel fronts and the political clans, building independent or partisan institutions and processes, BOL as a product of a peace process, hence opaque and conflicting provisions and codes not as a solution but as potential triggers to conflict and violence.

Frameworks are important to get consensus in legislative drafting. Bill 29 is made up of 63 pages, while Bill 30 had 222 pages. Language or semantics are also crucial because Bill 29 used "Electoral Code" instead of "Elections Code" while Bill 30 used Local "Governance" Code than Local "Government" Code. Clearly, the starting points were different. One talked about the voter and not elections while the other was looking through the process or governance and not the organization or local government units. Were the nuances by design?

Crucial to the Electoral Code is the demarcation of parliamentary and congressional bounds. Without these, it would be hard to have elections come 2025. It appears a separate legislative measure is being considered instead of being part of the Electoral Code.

Timelines need to be set up if there will be elections in BARMM by the midterm. Hard decisions need to be made soon since time is running out. These timelines will have to get legislation out in 2023 and an exit agreement signed before October 2024, the filing of the certificates of candidacy because, beyond the transition, democracy enters the frame.

Hands on deck

With Tropical Storm "Paeng" rampaging through BARMM, submerging the city of Cotabato and Maguindanao in water, the national government will have to put into action assistance to the areas, from clearing roads, rebuilding bridges, restoring order, and getting BARMM to respond to the needs of its constituents. Assistance should also be readily made in terms of connecting each locality to a response system in case of calamities, whether manmade or natural. BARMM should be able to use technology and have a response team on the ground ready to jump to the mainland and assist Basulta.

Hands on deck is BARMM for all Filipinos. Hands on deck is no longer in terms of emergencies, for whole of government and whole of nation is just another way of saying, all hands-on deck.


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