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Philippines Debating Law to Give More Autonomy to Islamic South

Filipino Muslims at rally supporting Bangsamoro Basic Law


NJ Viehland - published on 09/24/14

Draft Law Brings Hope, Faces Challenge of Religious Extremism

Supporters and critics of a proposed law devolving certain powers of the national government to a Muslim political entity in the southern Philippines wonder whether the law and proposed government system can protect the region from an onslaught of violent religious fundamentalist movements.

Persistent division among various indigenous Muslim (Moro) armed groups and recent allegations of contact with and recruitment of Filipinos by the Islamic State terrorist organization have prompted questions about regional, even national, secruity.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato in Mindanao, the main southern island, in a lecture at the Jesuit Loyola School of Theology last Wednesday acknowledged "the problem of radical violent fundamentalists coming into Mindanao…is a big concern for me."

The cardinal, who has consistently advocated for correcting "historical injustice" committed against the Moro people by Spanish conquests and migration was lecturing on "Church and the Search for Peace."

Jesuit-owned Ateneo de Manila had just honored him the day before with its "Bukas Palad" (open hands) Award "for his great contribution towards the attainment of peace between the Muslims and Christians in Maguindanao through education and promotion of dialogue and social encounters."

Cardinal Quevedo told faculty, students and guests at the lecture that he had asked Chairman Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) panel negotiating peace with the government about the possibility of extremism growing under a proposed autonomous political entity in the south called Bangsamoro (Moro nation).  

"Iqbal told me, ‘We are not like ISIL," the cardinal said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. The proposed Muslim autonomous region “will not take over churches, they will not prevent churches from being built, they will not close churches like the ISIL is doing now in Syria” and they will “not treat minorities the same way that others oppress minorities,” he said, quoting Iqbal’s remarks to him.

Still, the cardinal, in responding to questions, said he believes growth of violent fundamentalists "is a problem" because this involves foreigners.

MILF, a splinter group from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the largest armed rebel force in the south, has been negotiating peace on-and-off with the Philippine government for the past 17 years. On Sept. 10, President Benigno Aquino III sent a draft Bangsamoro Basic Law to the Philippine Congress.

Supporters say it is a key to ending more than three decades of a separatist war the MILF has fought against the government, initially aiming to establish Islamic rule in places it claimed as part of Moro ancestral domain.

The draft law provides for the creation of Bangsamoro, comprising descendants of people who were living in Mindanao and Palawan Island, southwest of Manila, before the Spanish occupied Moro territories beginning in the 1500s.

According to the draft law, descendants who are no longer Muslims have the right to become Bangsamoro members by registering themselves and family members to be part of the region.

Cardinal Quevedo said that despite questions, he remains "optimistic" about the BBL as a means to achieve peace and development and to allow Moro people to exercise their right to self determination. “I’m very optimistic now…but with a certain guardedness,” the cardinal replied to a question from the audience.

According to the law, the political region will have a democratic parliamentary system, and will not be an Islamic state. Elections will be of political parties, and non-Muslims can join any of the political parties. There are reserved seats in the legislature for Catholics, Buddhists, Christians and other representatives of minority groups.

Cardinal Quevedo emphasized that provisions in a Framework Basic Agreement and Annexes guarantee custodial property rights of non-Muslims and defense and promotion of religious freedom. Shariah Law will be applied only to Muslims.

During the implementation phase of the law, MILF fighters are to surrender their arms under watch of independent international monitors who will be taking an inventory of weapons turned in.

“While there is Church-state separation, there is a provision in the BBL for assistance from government for Madaris (Muslim schools) and for pilgrimages,” Cardinal Quevedo pointed out.

The Church leader’s support and concerns were echoed in other forums conducted as the 75-member ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives prepared to launch Wednesday its review of the draft law.

Anne Basman, head of the legal team of the government’s peace negotiating panel explained safeguards in the law against violence and extremist movements. She told Tapatan Forum Monday the Basic law declares that the Bangsamoro espouses non-violence in asserting one’s rights and airing grievances.

"If it comes to a point when it becomes a peace and order problem, then the usual law enforcement mechanisms are going to be in place the same way that you have military and police in the rest of the Philippines," Basman told Aleteia.

Former Local Government Secretary Rafael Alunan III, who helped the government with back-channel negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) for its 1996 Peace Agreement, told the same forum that while the term Bangsamoro suggests there is one homogenous community known to Muslims as the uma, "We also know that there are many divisions…factions in the uma."

A group of young educators and academics led by Nur Misuari established MNLF as a political organization in 1969. The Organization of Islamic Conference recognized it as the sole and legitimate representative of the Bangsamoro people and granted it permanent observer status.

"I recall in the early days of the MNLF when they began to discuss with government a possible peace settlement, Hashim Salamat broke away with Al Haj Murad and formed the MILF," Alunan said.

When MILF started to talk peace with the government, fighters split from the group and formed the BIFM (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement). "There’s a pattern of division that points to never-ending conflict in Mindanao," Alunan said. "I don’t know whether that’s cultural… or  part of a long-term agenda that we are still not aware of, or whether it’s just a product of mishandling," the ex-Cabinet secretary said.

There are also private armies of politicians and families who feel unprotected by the regional security force, and other extremist groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf, Basman added. Other participants asked whether the MILF or future Bangsamoro security force can control the armed groups that do not recognize MILF’s leadership and peace agreement.
Retired Commodore Rex Robles, who was at the same forum, tackled security concerns related to the proposed law. He pointed out the need for the law to be clearer on what will be done with armed groups, their arms, and what kind of intelligence capability the proposed region will have.

"By this time, intelligence should be properly funded. Without intelligence people infiltrating various groups in Mindanao, we are reduced to guessing or surmising" about reports such as allegations of funding and recruitment by ISIL.

Intelligence work could also validate or belie reports of supposed dedicated young and brave people emerging as leaders in armed groups who might cause problems for the future Bangsamoro, Robles pointed out.

In last week’s lecture, Quevedo had warned that enacting BBL alone will not bring peace between Bangsamoro, MILF and the government. "We’ll have to wait and see whether MNLF, BIFM and the MNLF-factions will join the group and say yes to the BBL," Cardinal Quevedo said.

The peace builder advised, "Know the facts, do not misinterpret the law, evangelize the people, evangelize the youth, rid them of biases and prejudices, form a social conscience regarding the BBL, pray for wisdom for the legislature and the Supreme Court – not just because they are part of the government and therefore they will support, but that they be critical about the various sections of the BBL.”

NJ Viehland writes from Manila.

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