Friday, March 12, 2021

Is BARMM hostage?

'Marcos seeks compromise on BARMM polls postponement'

COTABATO CITY – Senator Imee Marcos, who chairs the Senate committee on electoral reforms, said postponing elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will also mean a delay in developing the restive region and correcting the historical injustice on its people.

Sen. Imee Marcos, Kusug Tausug Rep. Shernee Tambut, BARMM Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim

Under the law, the BARMM elections are supposed to take place at the same time as national elections in May 2022, but several bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives have called for postponing the regional polls to 2025.

Muslims and their political leaders and various sectors have strongly opposed the postponement of the BARMM polls and Marcos said that full political legitimacy in BARMM can only be achieved after elections.

Sulu Governor Sakur Tan with Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa and Sulu minicipal mayors during a recent meeting at the Senate.(Zack Musa)

Sulu Governor Sakur Tan and his mayors and the Tausug people are also opposing the postponement of the BARMM polls. And there were reports that Basilan and Lanao del Sur and Tawi-Tawi provinces want the BARMM elections to push through next year.

Marcos said a balance must be struck between fulfilling the main purpose of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and giving the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) enough time to cope with difficulties in governance wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and thus effect a smooth turnover of authority to elected officials.

“Given the purpose of this (BARMM) law, which is to rectify historical injustice - political, military, as well as economic - it is important that we conduct these elections at the soonest possible time,” Marcos said during a hearing of the Senate committee on local government.

“Decommissioning militants and weapons and achieving a normal way of life cannot take place without full political legitimacy, without inclusive governance, without the complete exercise of the Bangsamoro people's voting rights. The election has its advantages,” Marcos explained. 

“Only after elections will the BARMM be able to focus on normalization that has been stymied by the pandemic, and to address the region's unique and difficult circumstances,” Marcos added.

The BARMM elections can be held “months or a year after” the May 2022 elections, instead of three years later, Marcos recommended, adding, while the BTA is still in place, the BARMM elections will be under the control of Comelec.

Marcos, who cited the Palawan plebiscite, even quoted President Rodrigo Duterte as saying: “Upon the orders of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, all elections must continue as close to the stipulated dates as possible.”

Former rebel chieftain-turned-politician Murad Ebrahim insisted that running the BARMM is solely vested on the peace agreement his group Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed with the Filipino government eight years ago.

Ebrahim, now BARMM Chief Minister, said the 2014 peace accord was the basis for them to continue ruling the Muslim autonomous region. He and his allies in the BTA are pushing and lobbying for the extension of the interim government. It would also extend Ebrahim’s term and BTA members and those holding key positions in the regional government.  

But any extension of the interim government would violate the BOL which the MILF and the government crafted. Under the BOL, the BTA will be dissolved once the new parliament is formed after the first regular elections in BARMM in 2022 and any extension in the BTA’s term would require congressional approval. 

Is BARMM hostage?

In a previous virtual hearing of the House of Representatives, Kusog Tausug Rep. Shernee Tambut asked this question to Ebrahim: “For example, there is an election and then the MILF members who are members of the BTA now do not win, what will happen to the agreement between the MILF and the government? Will the MILF turn away from that agreement, for example you do not win in the election, if you are no longer for example, member of the parliament, will you turn away from that agreement with the government?” 

In his reply, Ebrahim suggested the peace agreement may suffer from Manila's failure to ensure the MILF-led BTA to stay in power. He did not say whether the MILF or its members may resort to armed struggle again. “We do not want to speculate, but then you see the implementation of the agreement is a partnership between the MILF and the government and the mechanism is the BTA, and now if the MILF is no longer the BTA then there is no partnership between the national government and the MILF in implementing, so I do not see how,” he said.

Ebrahim also doubted whether the next leaders of the BARMM and new members of the BTA may be able to honor the provisions of the peace accord after Tambut asked him what steps would he take if the MILF is no longer in control of the interim government and the BTA. 

“My next question is assuming that there will be an election for the BTA-BARMM on 2022, and then assuming you will not win, and there will be new set of officers are you saying that the newly elected officers will not be able to perform the task you mentioned, that only you can do the things you mentioned meaning people like (House) Deputy Speaker Mujiv Hataman cannot performed the task you have mentioned or seasoned legislators, politicians like Congressman Khalid Dimaporo na napakagaling (at) hindi nila kaya gawin yun mga na-mention mo at ikaw, kayo lang mga BTA ngayon ang may kayang gumawa noon?” asked Tambut.

Ebrahim maintained that BARMM is the result of the peace accord and without the MILF at the helm of power there is no agreement or partnership between his group and the government. “I recognize the capability of our leaders, other leaders but then remember that this is an agreement between two parties and implementation must be a partnership between the two parties, so that is our reason,” he said, adding postponing the BARMM election will give them more time to fully implement the peace deal.

“The challenge now will be the implementation process meaning the agreement will not be fully implemented. So now on our side, we are not postponing this just to be able to hold power, but we are postponing this in order to complete the implementation of the agreement, once it is complemented we are ready to have the election,” he added.

But Tambut posed another question and asked this to Ebrahim: “My question is what are the matters that you need to accomplish that necessitates the cancellation of the first election in 2022 and why would they be a hindrance to the conduct of an election in 2022?”

Ebrahim replied: “Actually, the transition of the BTA is the mechanism that will be an agreed mechanism between the MILF and the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) in implementing the comprehensive (peace) agreement through the BOL, so the reason why we are asking for an extension, for the postponement or moving in of the 2022 election to 2025 is based on our analysis, considering all the experience we have also, and the challenges we had, so we see that 2022 will not complete the implementation of both the political aspects and normalization aspects of the agreement.”

“So basically, if it will not be implemented then the (peace) agreement is not in place, so we are not sure whether the next government, because the BTA as a mechanism to implement, is already out of the picture so we cannot be assured that the other provisions which needed to be implemented both in the political aspect and the normalization aspect will be implemented.”

At this point, Tambut, citing Ebrahim's frequent referral to peace in the troubled region, asked the MILF chieftain why did he refused, even up to now, to surrender members of the MILF who massacred 44 Special Action Force commandos in the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province.

Tambut was referring to the January 2015 police operation to capture Malaysian bomber Zulkifli bin Hir, who was eventually killed in the operation in deep inside MILF territory  in Tukanalipao village. Police commandos were on their way to re-join their more than 300 SAF members after killing Zulkifli and cutting off his finger for DNA analysis when MILF forces, aided by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), attacked them and sparking daylong clashes. 

“With regard to the issue on peace, I am sorry but there is already this agreement between the MILF and the government. I am sorry to say, but still there is the BIFF and then still there is this issue about the SAF 44 if you are going to talk about peace. Now my second point is regarding the unfinished tasks, well it would be arrogant to say that only the MILF can function, can perform this unfinished tasks besides you were given an ample amount of time to do everything you needed to do, in fact it is stated in the (Bangsamoro) Organic Law that by 2022 we will have BARMM election and yet you did not perform so basically that is your fault,” Tambut said.

“Now, if we will allow the extension of the BTA-BARMM because BTA was not able to finish their tasks, well who knows they might just delay and delay and use their lack of performance as an excuse so as not to hold an election in the point that I intend to introduce an amendment to all the house bills filed that there shall be a referendum to submit this amendment to a referendum so we can hear the voice of the people, anyway we submitted the Organic Law to a plebiscite and now that we are making an important amendment it is important that we consult again the people whether they want to extend the election or not through a referendum,” she added.

But in previous media interview, Ebrahim admitted that should election in BARMM pushes through next year, they may not be able to win because they have accomplished so little. “We’re very concerned kasi ang tingin namin, nag-i-start pa lang kami. And then parang wala pa kaming tangible na accomplishment talaga na maipakita namin. So ‘yun ang challenge sa amin, na kung mag-eleksyon, baka sabihin ng mga tao, wala naman ginawa ito,” he said.

Ebrahim said new transition schedule might not be enough to complete systemic and structural changes in the region, including the crucial decommissioning of combatants under the peace deal’s normalization process. “Kasi nga nakita natin na kailangan talaga na meron. Halimbawa, mabuti kung talagang siguradong manalo kami (in 2022 election). Pero walang assurance ‘yun kasi anybody’s game na pagka-eleksyon na. Pag hindi, ano mangyayari dun sa other aspects ng negotiation? So sana matapos yung term ng transition, ma-implement na rin lahat nung sa normalization process para mag-coincide. Kailangan i-push namin na before the election talagang yung normalization track ay ma-complete natin,” he told journalist Christian Esguerra.

BARMM's block grant is worth P65.3 billion on top of a P10 billion special development fund. (Mindanao Examiner)

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