PNoy closes gap on Muslim Mindanao through Bangsamoro Basic Law

Manila, Philippines - "I will not let peace be snatched from my people again."

This was the key message of President of the Philippines, Benigno 'Pnoy' Aquino III during the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro Basic Law on Thursday afternoon, March 27, 2014 at Kalayaan Grounds, Malacañang Palace.

PNoy emphasized that the agreement stands as a testament to how far trust and earnestness can move humanity forward and it will become an instrument in ending conflict with the Muslim Mindanao.

“When the Bangsamoro people felt that they had no redress within the system, they then tried to address their grievances from outside of the system. We must therefore give them a significant boost up, so that they can catch up: If we are to truly address the root causes of conflict, we must close the gap between the region and the rest of Filipino society,” Aquino said.

As the Bangsamoro matures, it will also serve as the gateway to trade, investment, and cultural exchanges within the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area and its environs—igniting a virtuous cycle of security, development, and equitable progress for the peoples of the entire region.

Aquino expects the deliberations in Congress to be characterized by a sincere desire to improve on the Bangsamoro Basic Law—and not by self-interest that only aims to perpetuate an untenable status quo.

Meanwhile, Senate President Franklin M. Drilon on Friday said that the Bangsamoro Basic Law must "supremely respect" the Philippine Constitution, as he vowed to take the forefront in congressional efforts to preserve and guard the nation's sovereignty amid the establishment of the Bangsamoro political entity in southern Mindanao.

With the Bangsamoro Basic Law, Drilon acknowledged that questions on the Constitution will take center stage: "While we must give the Constitution its most liberal application, we have to make sure that the basic law must be a unifying and integrating legislation, and not a divisive one."

The senator believes that their vigilance on the issue is their due responsibility as citizens and lawmakers of the republic: "Whether Moro or Christian, we are all Filipinos. And therefore, it is our moral and legal obligation to preserve our country as one. And that is going to be my guiding principle at this matter."

Drilon urged his colleagues to take an active role in the crafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and passionately debate on the most pertinent issues about the peace accord.

The Bangsamoro will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that has suffered from decades of poverty, corruption, and conflict.

WATCH: President Aquino delivered his message during the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro [ Video courtesy of RTVMalacanang]

His Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III
President of the Philippines
At the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro

[Delivered at Malacañan Palace on March 27, 2014]

Magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat.

In August of 2011, I flew to Japan along with six members of my Cabinet and Marvic Leonen, who was then chair of the government peace panel, to meet with our brothers Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and Mohagher Iqbal, and their companions from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This move took many by surprise. There were those who reacted with intense skepticism followed by criticism: The MILF, after all, was a group that had long been locked in combat with our troops. The most vocal of these naysayers expressed tremendous criticism, assailing my integrity, alleging that I had ulterior motives, and casting doubt on my administration’s commitment to transparency. Some asked: Were we not granting the MILF undue leverage in the negotiations? Of what significance was a face-to-face meeting in ending an insurgency that had raged and festered for two generations?

Even as a congressman, I had often wondered how two panels, representing intense antagonists in a decades-long conflict, could be expected to possess the modicum of trust needed to advance the peace process. As a member of the opposition, little did I know that only a few years later, upon taking office as President, I would be the one tasked to solve this dilemma. When the negotiations with the MILF had reached a very serious deadlock, I decided that the time had come to personally reach out and try to achieve that modicum of trust that could advance the peace process. I asked to meet Chairman Murad so that we could talk in an earnest manner, and our long-time ally Japan graciously and instantly agreed to host our meeting.

Talking personally with Chairman Murad, I felt that he, like me, was prepared to come to the table not as an adversary, but as a friend who shared a singular aspiration for peace. After all, if both parties approached the table asking only how to win, or how to give up the least, then there could never be a meeting of the minds. His points made it apparent that neither he nor any of his companions were out to consolidate power or to perpetuate a feudal and oppressive system. They were seeking fair and equal representation in institutions—and most of all, they wanted peace. Their proposals marked a real difference from the failed experiment that was ARMM, and gave one reason to hope that the talks will progress, and that lasting peace will finally be attained.

And so the seeds of trust were planted, and consequently nourished by the hard work of all stakeholders. In October of 2012, a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed, providing a roadmap and solidifying the trust that the panels had for each other. Communities on the ground—whether Muslim, Christian, or Lumad—likewise bought into the dream of consequent development for the region. At the forefront were the panels and their mediator, who hammered out annex after annex, aware that transforming our ideals into tangible realities required consummate attention to the details.

And just as this chapter of positive engagement with the MILF began in a foreign land, in a country that shares with the Filipino people the aspiration of regional peace, stability, and harmony, so too did this current chapter in our saga unfold. On the 25th of January, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the final Annex on Normalization was jointly signed by the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Today, we will witness the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

We thank the members of both panels: The sincerity of Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, and her predecessor Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, permeated throughout the peace process. [Applause] MILF Chief Negotiator Mohagher Iqbal likewise set the stage for fair and sincere negotiations. [Applause] The new facilitator in the person of the Honorable Tengku Ghafar: Your fair and steady hand was a key factor in the success of this process; our country thanks you. I also reiterate my thanks to Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, who exhibited genuine leadership for his people, and Secretary Ging Deles, who I presume will allow herself some well-deserved rest before she braces herself for the next challenge. [Applause] You can have tomorrow off. [Laughter] Ging, in all seriousness, your decades of work as a peace advocate have now borne their sweetest fruit. I assure you, now that this Comprehensive Agreement will be signed, there will be less stress between us. [Laughter] Let me also thank Governor Mujiv Hataman of the ARMM, [applause] who has demonstrated what can be done through good leadership. From the outset, we shared the view that the system as presently crafted is susceptible to abuse by the wrong leaders. He has worked for true transformation that lends itself to permanence. And now, after all his achievements, he willingly steps aside. That is the sort of leader we need: Focused on the other, and not on himself. [Applause]

We thank everyone whose faith never faltered in this journey. To the people of Indonesia and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: We truly appreciate your solidarity. As a member of the International Monitoring Team, Indonesia, along with Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, and previously the European Union and Libya, were integral in creating the peaceful environment that proved conducive to the negotiations. [Applause] Our people extend their gratitude to the members of the IMT. We also thank the International Contact Group: We reiterate our gratitude to Japan, whose graciousness proved crucial in winning a once-elusive trust between the Philippine government and the MILF; the United Kingdom, whose experience in resolving conflict provided a shining example as we embarked on our own journey; other member-countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and the NGO-members of the ICG–thank you for supporting peace in the Philippines. [Applause] To the members of the Independent Commission on Policing: Canada, Australia, and again, Japan—thank you for your help. [Applause] We thank the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which served as an observer to these talks. We likewise thank all our partners who have aided us throughout this process: The United States through USAID; Japan through the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD); Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States once more, and the European Union through their contributions to the Mindanao Trust Fund; Australia and New Zealand for the Facility for Advisory Support for Transition Capacities (FASTRAC); and Australia once more for the OPAPP-DFAT Technical Assistance Facility and the Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao. We also thank the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and again the European Union for the assistance that you have extended to us. You all have the enduring gratitude of the Filipino people. We will never forget the support you have given, and continue to give us.

And of course, the Filipino people will forever be indebted to Malaysia, [applause] whose presence illuminated every step of the peace process. We have the leadership of His Excellency, Prime Minister Najib Razak to thank for this. The role that Malaysia played in forging this agreement is especially significant, given that the Bangsamoro forms the nexus of bloodlines that links Malaysia and the Philippines. And as we looked to the shared history of the Malay people for kinship and inspiration, so too will we forge a future of shared stability, prosperity, and inclusiveness through our bonds of shared success. Together, we have set an example for the entire world: This Agreement stands as a testament to how far trust and earnestness can move humanity forward; it shows how righteousness, reason, and good will are the mightiest of instruments in ending conflict; it proves that the search for common ground is infinitely more productive than hegemonic ambition.

If we sustain the momentum for peace, by 2016, the MILF will have shed its identity as a military force, and transformed itself into a political entity, casting its stake in democracy by vying for seats in the Bangsamoro elections. The Bangsamoro shall form a perimeter of vigilance against the spread of extremism; it shall act as a bridge of moderation among the great faiths of the various constituencies in ASEAN. From this shared security, we shall enhance the era of prosperity that is dawning upon our region, and harness its energies towards creating a regime of opportunity and inclusivity where no one is left behind. As the Bangsamoro matures, it shall serve as the gateway to trade, investment, and cultural exchanges within the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area and its environs—igniting a virtuous cycle of security, development, and equitable progress for the peoples of the entire region.

This is our vision for the Bangsamoro–and just as the Agreement we are signing today did not appear magically out of thin air, so too will our next steps have to involve the same trust and long-term thinking that brought us to this shared triumph. At this point, the Bangsamoro Transition Commission is hard at work in drafting a Bangsamoro Basic Law that is equitable, practical, and empowering, and which serves the interests of the entire nation. It is a law that will have to pass my personal muster as a President pledged to do justice to all, before it is submitted to Congress. My administration will go all out to forge a principled consensus for enduring security and prosperity; I expect the deliberations in Congress to be characterized by a sincere desire to improve on the Bangsamoro Basic Law—and not by self-interest that only aims to perpetuate an untenable status quo. [Applause]

Our mission now is to draft and pass this law so that it will be presented to the people for ratification in a plebiscite. Our goal: to have the Bangsamoro Transition Authority in place by 2015, when it will serve as the interim Bangsamoro government until the elections in 2016. In this manner, the people themselves will turn the tide of strife into an era of peace and equitable progress; they themselves will prove that the democratic space is vast enough to address every Filipino’s grievances and concerns.

We thus call on everyone to widen the avenues for trust and positive engagement; let us cast aside past prejudices, and contribute to the atmosphere of optimism that has, for the first time in a long while, become prevalent in Muslim Mindanao. It should be the paramount concern of all people of goodwill to do their part: Let us exchange our bullets for ripening fruit, our cynicism for hope, our histories of sorrow for a future of harmony, peace, and prosperity.

We must remember that, for so long, Muslim Mindanao has been left in the margins. The amount of attention that the national government granted it ebbed with the electoral cycle, and this broken system was exploited by the powerful few who lorded it over everyone else. For generations, fellow Filipinos in the region were embroiled in a cycle of poverty, injustice, and violence. The huge imbalance between Muslim Mindanao and the rest of the country served to breed resentment, and consequently insurgency. When the Bangsamoro people felt that they had no redress within the system, they then tried to address their grievances from outside of the system. We must therefore give them a significant boost up, so that they can catch up: [Applause] If we are to truly address the root causes of conflict, we must close the gap between the region and the rest of Filipino society.

I have to state that I fully empathize with our Muslim countrymen. Like them, my family experienced how impossible it was to achieve redress of legitimate grievances, as we were oppressed by a dictatorial government.

What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in the status quo in Muslim Mindanao. But as with all change, its success depends on our continuous vigilance. We must admit that there are those who will champion the status quo to preserve themselves in positions of power and wealth. Maintaining this requires holding back the majority, for any sign of individual or collective advancement is a threat. Maintaining fear and insecurity allows them to prey on the entrepreneur whose success is rewarded by kidnapping; the farmer who improved the rough land only to have it grabbed; the student whose very promising future is cut short by a bomb; the pensioner who, seeking security, falls prey to the unscrupulous pyramid scammer; or those mired in desperate times and desperate situations who fall victim to false prophets from either side. These people ask, and have been asking, the legitimate question: What did we do to deserve this? The simple answer is: You don’t; no one does. My father taught me: If you tolerate the abuse of the rights of one, it sets the stage for the abuse of your own rights. The only correct action then is to stand up for your brother whose rights have been abused; otherwise, we will only be condemning ourselves to suffer the same fate. [Applause]

The majority who deserve an opportunity to improve their lot in life, who stand to benefit from the onset of peace, stand at the crossroads with us: On one hand, will we be held back by an untenable status quo? Or, together, will we as an entire nation rise and prosper? To those who will not join us, I ask: Are you really that confident that we will have another singular opportunity like the one we have today? Do you really think that the confluence of factors such that exists today will happen again—when the Filipino people and their government are committed to redressing a historic injustice; where the international community has thrown its full support behind the achievement of peace; and when we have already fixed an electoral system that was designed to subvert the sovereign will of the people?

May this also stand as a warning to those who wish to derail our path to a final, lasting peace—those who wish to sow divisiveness for self-interest, and those who continue to wield arms to pursue their own agendas: So many people have suffered for so long; so many of our stakeholders have worked so hard to arrive at this point. I will not let peace be snatched from my people again. [Applause] Not now, when we have already undertaken the most difficult and most significant steps to achieve it. Those who want to test the resolve of the state will be met with a firm response based on righteousness and justice—as we demonstrated in Zamboanga City. [Applause]

I have always said that being President is not the easiest of jobs; the fight to change the status quo is even more daunting. I do not want to just take my turn on a merry-go-round that goes nowhere but round and round—to perpetuate or even exacerbate existing problems. I would rather ride the horse that actually leads to a definite destination. And in this journey, there will always be obstacles to national transformation, just as there will always be those who seek to disrupt any sort of momentum that we have gained. At times it seems as if the selfish few can fatally hamper the future of so many. There are, however, days like this: Days when our collective philosophy of sincere consensus-building yields the most enduring of results; days when we can stand witness to the hard work of our people; days when we can be filled with hope despite all the challenges that remain. There are days when we can find time to reflect on what we have achieved in less than four years: In this case, the end to decades of conflict, and the beginning of development and prosperity for the Bangsamoro. Today, we have proven that not only can our people dream again; but in fact, we are now beginning to achieve our dreams.

We have exhibited tremendous trust and commitment, which has gotten us this far. Today, let us commit to being more energetic advocates of this rightful path.

In the coming months and years, let us exert even greater effort into making the path of peace–more inclusive, inviting more to join this advocacy and to contribute to the peaceful and progressive future that we are envisioning.

If our goals as a nation are fulfilled, my brothers, Al Haj Murad, Mohagher Iqbal, and myself can all look forward to that one day in the not-so-distant future, when we will all sit back and enjoy a quiet sunset in Mindanao [applause]—perhaps with the company of friends such as Prime Minister Najib Razak. [Laughter and applause] That day, we will look back to the 27th of March 2014, and allow ourselves a little pride. For now, more work needs to be done, and I look forward to building a peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive Bangsamoro with all of you.

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