20 September 2014

The Philippine government negotiators appeared to have negotiated well the proposed territorial extent of the Bangsamoro since one prominent feature of it seems to be the exclusion of the usually contested areas whose political leaders usually bristles at being included as part of what is now the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), like the Zamboanga region, particularly Zamboanga City, the Cotabato provinces – North Cotabato and South Cotabato, and even the province of Palawan, which was then proposed to be included in the Tripoli Agreement, the 1977 peace agreement negotiated by Pres. Marcos with MoroNational Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari.

But this exclusion could turn out to be a brilliant political tactic on the part of the MILF if it will ultimately result in ensuring the smooth sailing of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in Congress, where the elected representatives of those supposed-to-be included provinces lie in wait to see whether they are in or out.

Reading the text of the draft BBL, the core territory of the Bangsamoro includes the following

a. the present geographical area of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao;

b. the Municipalities of Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan and Tangkal in the province of Lanao del Norte and all other barangays in the Municipalities of Kabacan, Carmen, Aleosan, Pigkawayan, Pikit, and Midsayap that voted for inclusion in the ARMM during the 2001 plebiscite;

c. the cities of Cotabato and Isabela;

d. all other contiguous area where there is resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least ten percent (10%) of the registered voters in the area asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to the conduct of the ratification of the Bangsamoro law and the process of delimitation of the Bangsamoro.

What is noteworthy in the proposed law is the inclusion of Cotabato City, now the de facto center of ARMM, as this is where the seat of government of the ARMM is located. But Cotabato City is not politically a part of the ARMM as it voted no in the last plebiscite. In a way, Cotabato City being a host of the government offices of the ARMM while not being a part of it makes sense, it’s like Washington DC which is not technically a state in the US with the same standing as a regular state. It also removes the envy of other ARMM constituent-provinces whose leading municipalities are not the center of government for the autonomous region.

Cotabato City can be considered a key city in Central Mindanao, with a good port and an airport and a central location for entry and exit of goods and people to and from all the other municipalities of the then Empire Province of Cotabato in the time of President Quezon onwards, no wonder it was the seat of government for all the experiments in autonomous government from the time of Marcos up to the tenure of President Corazon Aquino, be it the Office of the Regional Commissioner (ORC, which is now also the nameplate for jeepney rides), to the Regional Autonomous Government or the RAG, and finally the ARMM.

Given the recent news coverage for the independence referendum for Scotland, whereby around 55% of its registered voters rejected such option for independence, the inclusion of Cotabato City as part of the territory of the Bangsamoro could become a hook for media attention, given the emotional attachment of most of its residents who have actually left the place and settled somewhere else.

But if one looks at it from the developmental perspective, it could be more productive long-term for Cotabato City to be a part of the Bangsamoro and become even its capital, as this may spur infrastructure development as well as institution-building efforts to better equip the city to handle the demands of being a capital city of the Bangsamoro. This will in turn enhance the business and livelihood opportunities of its residents, be it Christian, Muslim or lumad (or indigenous people).

Will the Christian residents now of Cotabato City, who previously voted not to be a part of the ARMM, allow this?

The draft BBL lays out in its provision on plebiscite that only a majority of the registered voters who will vote in favor of inclusion in the Bangsamoro is sufficient for that city to be part of the Bangsamoro. This is not a difficult threshold to achieve.

Suppose this majority cannot be achieved in the plebiscite for the establishment of the Bangsamoro, there is another provision in the draft BBL that can be tapped by advocates such that where at least ten percent (10%) of the registered voters petition the soon-to-be-established Bangsamoro Electoral Office, then another plebiscite can be held for the same purpose of determining whether an area can be made part of the Bangsamoro or not, and the same majority of the registered voters would be necessary to achieve the same result. The draft BBL does not specify how many times this petition and plebiscite can be done, so given that there’s no limit, this could be an endless process which may eventually wear down the oppositors for inclusion in the Bangsamoro.

At the outset, the best outcome for all concerned is for Cotabato City to be part of the Bangsamoro at the time of its setting up so it will reap the same goodwill and momentum at the time of the creation of the new political entity, but it is all up to the registered voters there to make this decision.


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