Basilan located in Western Mindanao has long suffered devastating sectarian rebellion and bloody terrorism. But, last September 10 the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) shone a new ray of peace upon the resource-rich island province when it oriented the members of the provincial peace and order council (PPOC) on the disarmament and socio-economic development features of the two-year old peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). IAG, which is based in Cotabato City and promotes peace-making policy development in Southern Philippines, is engaging Basilan’s provincial and municipal governments in the implementation in their locality of the peace agreement, principally the normalization component.
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IAG consultant Fr. Jun Mercado keynoted the forum by underscoring the convergence of the council’s peace and order mission with the goal of the normalization program. “Harnessing the provincial and municipal peace and order councils,” he said, “will establish the lines of cooperation that will facilitate the implementation of the normalization’s various components and activities in local communities where residents are found and who expect to enjoy the benefits of the peace process as well as participate in realizing their total human security.”
Vice-Governor Keemhar Jay Sakkalahul presided the forum held in the provincial capitol in Isabela City. It was attended by representatives of government agencies, municipal governments, the police and armed forces, and civil society organizations. Last December, IAG also held a multi-stakeholders forum in the province on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to gather the local population’s issues and concerns in the formulation and enactment of the legislation to establish a new autonomous government for Basilan and other Muslim-dominated provinces in Mindanao.
Fr. Mercado updated the peace and order forum on the status of the BBL being deliberated in Congress, explaining that the draft law intended to serve as the legal framework of the GPH-MILF Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) has spawned modified versions in the Congress’ Lower House and Senate. He also cautioned Basilan’s BBL-supportive folks that the lack of time and quorum in Congress may prevent the bill’s enactment during the present term of President Aquino.
Addressing the non-passage dilemma, IAG executive director Atty. Benedicto Bacani said: “This is why we had this orientation, which is not the last, we will have more fora in the municipal levels, too, so there will be cooperation and understanding, that’s what the peace process means. Through the dialogues, we will realize that the peace process is a long one, that not all depends upon the BBL. The people are apprehensive that if the BBL will not pass, there will be war, it is not like that at all. The BBL is only one aspect in the roadmap of the CAB. If it will not be consummated in the present administration of Aquino, then we will continue in the next administration.”
Normalization is the only one of the five annexes of CAB not iterated in the BBL. It focuses on setting up and maintaining the peace and security operations during the interim months leading to the creation of the Bangsamoro government through the BBL. But socio-economic projects are already being implemented in the envisioned core Bangsamoro region, to form mainly from the present outgoing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), to stabilize social conditions.
Fr. Mercado said in the forum that for peace and order to reign in a community, the people must enjoy four benefits, namely, they have food on the table, they have jobs and earn a living, they receive justice for offenses they suffer, and live in freedom from fear and want.
“That’s why it is important to discuss here in the peace and order council what normalization is about,” he said. “What is decommissioning? How can the different stakeholders help in this is work for all of us? We have to be together in this, your provincial government can rely on (IAG) to help”, Fr. Mercado said.
Atty. Mohammad Al-Amin Julkipli of the GPH peace panel legal team defined to the gathering the normalization program as “the process through which communities affected by decades of war in Mindanao can return to peaceful life and pursue sustainable livelihood free from fear of violence and crime.” Working together, the government and MILF supported by various humanitarian and international agencies and civil society like the IAG are implementing projects to achieve comprehensive human security of Moros and their Lumad neighbors in Mindanao, he said.
Atty. Julkipli discussed the normalization roadmap wherein it runs parallel to the political component to establish the Bangsamoro government. Normalization’s key feature concerning the decommissioning of the Bangsamoro Islamic Army Forces combatants will happen in phases, he said. The first phase took place last June with the formal demobilization of 145 BIAF fighters and turning in of their weapons in a ceremony in Maguindanao province graced by President Aquino, the peace panels and national and international officials. The next three phases will take place, too, in conjunction with the ratification of the BBL, inauguration of the police force under the new Bangsamoro government, and before the signing by the peace panels of the exit circular signaling the full implementation of the CAB.
Explaining further, Atty. Julkipli said the normalization program has four sub-components, namely, security, socio-economic development, transitional justice and reconciliation, and confidence building. The security sub-component in turn comes in five segments: policing, which involves the study and recommendation by an independent commission of an appropriate Bangsamoro police force that is organically part of the Philippine National Police; creation of transitional mechanisms for an interim security framework in the form of the Joint Normalization Committee, Joint Peace and Security Committee, and Joint Peace and Security Teams – all of which will function in tandem with the existing ceasefire bodies like the International Monitoring Team. Atty. Julkipli pointed out that MILF participation in the interim security committees will orient it on how the Armed Forces and police service perform their work; Decommissioning of BIAF combatants will re-introduce them to civilian life, enabled by socio-economic assistance from government and foreign supporters, supervised by the Independent Decommissioning Body composed of foreign and Filipino experts including from the MILF, in which all of the front’s weapons will eventually be put beyond use; next, AFP presence in MILF villages are gradually reduced as security conditions improve and unexploded ordinance are cleared.
The fifth and delicate segment of normalization calls for the neutralization of private armed groups, Atty. Julkipli said. In a recent memorandum circular, the government has formed the National Task Force on the Disbandment of Private Armed Groups in the Areas of the Bangsamoro and Adjacent Regions IX to XII. The circular rationalizes that dismantling of armed groups is mandated in the Constitution and stipulated in the CAB. Atty. Julkipli said all rebel groups including the Moro National Liberation Front and New People’s Army and criminal bands are covered by the anti-gun project. He said, too: “Disarming to take down private armies need not be through violent means, in fact more through moral suasion, negotiation, legal methods like threats of filing cases”.
Another component of normalization is the intensified socio-economic development to resettle the combatants and internally displaced persons, which Atty. Julkipli said is already being achieved through the MILF’s Bangsamoro Development Agency as prescribed by a well-validated plan. A fourth component is Transitional Justice and Reconciliation to redress historical slights against the Moros, human rights violations committed in the autonomous areas, and other restitutions – all intended to heal and reconcile. A final component is the transformation of MILF camps into productive civilian communities as well as possible amnesty for constituents wrongly jailed.
While updating the peace and security forum, Col. Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of the 104th Army Brigade whose area of responsibility covers the entire province, batted for the introduction of more livelihood projects for the MILF rebels in Basilan. He said that with steadier and bigger incomes as against their present marginal subsistence, the rebels would adhere more to the peace process, especially if the BBL will not be enacted soon. He said: “It is basic to address the roots of the uprising through their stomach. If they will have a regular livelihood, they will keep faith in the BBL, believe that the government is sincere and is there to help them. They will not blame the government of neglecting them.” He revealed that Abu Sayaff and foreign terrorists set up their training camps near MILF communities which pose the danger that the rebels will be drawn into firefights whenever the Army operate against the lawless groups, which happened in 2014. Nevertheless, he said, “We have good communication with the MILF commanders (and) we keep each other informed about our movements, especially when we operate in their areas.”
Vice-Governor Sakkalahul said provincial officials are in touch with the MILF commanders. “There is no sign of volatility (among them) if the BBL will not pass’, he noted.
Summing up the discussions, Atty. Bacani said “The CAB is the important document which lays down the work to do for the peace in Mindanao. That is why my view is we should not be rash with the BBL, it is important and so discussion on it should be thorough. This is not only for the MILF but all stakeholders. (Meantime) there are many aspects in the CAB that can be implemented even without the BBL, one of which is normalization, that is why we should understand what it is.”
Along the same point, Prof. Reydan Conlu Lacson, program manager of IAG, said: “We came to realize there should be an intensification and continuation in advocacy over the participation of local government units and grassroots in the peace process. We also realized communication lines should be firmed up between the LGUs and the community and the officials of this province. This prompted Atty. Bacani to say that the PRO-Politics project” – under whose aegis the forum was conducted – “is actually programming for a continuous engagement in Basilan for more of such activities and the purpose of this is to strengthen the participation of the LGUs and province in the peace process.”
Atty. Bacani further emphasized that “The CAB will not succeed without the support of many and they will not support if the information they get are wrong, if they are afraid or they are angry. So, it is good that they understand what it is all about, what we should do, and we help each other to achieve the contents of the agreement.“
Written by Rey-Luis Banagudos