Beyond Mamasapano: Tough road still ahead for Bangsamoro peace

Panoramic shot of Mamasapano, showing the new bridge on the left and the old one on the right. Photo by JAKE SORIANO
Panoramic shot of Mamasapano, showing the new bridge on the left and the old one on the right. Photo by JAKE SORIANO


BARANGAY TUKANALIPAO, Mamasapano, Maguindanao — The skeleton of a new bridge, concrete, now stands close to the old wood one made iconic by the bloody incident six months ago.

A sign of further development is a poster, next to the new bridge, announcing a P50 million irrigation system project.

The old wood bridge still stands, wobbly, held together by seemingly brittle strings. Crossing it leads one to the cornfield, site of the encounter that claimed the lives of 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Armed Forces (PNP-SAF), 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and five civilians.

Behind the cornfield stands a lone house, and in it lives alone farmer Kusalim Kusain, 40 years old.

When he heard the gunfire early morning of Jan. 25, he thought it was “rido,” a sporadic but familiar outburst of violence between feuding families.

He tried getting back to sleep but could not. Then a bullet hit a part of his house. He realized what was happening was not “rido.” He fled.

Kusain lost his corn and cattle in the firefight, and had to take a loan to plant again. Now the corn is ripening. The once-rough road to town is now a bit paved. He says this will be helpful for transporting the harvest.

Asked if it has become quieter in Tuka after the encounter, he answers in Maguindanao, “Same old.”

His house still carries that hole from where the bullet hit six months ago, mirroring it would seem the lingering aftermath of the incident that reopened old wounds and created new ones.

Mamasapano underscored the need for a lasting solution to conflict in the deadliest of areas in the country, but it also altered the course of that possible solution.

Passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was further delayed.

In his final State of the Nation Address (SONA) President Benigno Simeon Aquino III urged Congress to pass the BBL within his term.

He did not mention, however, a crucial issue: that the law be consistent with the peace deal his administration signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The FAB, the CAB, and a meaningful BBL

The BBL finally came up an hour and 30 minutes into the President’s last SONA.

May ilang mga batas na nais kong ilapit upang sanay maipasa sa loob ng kasalukuyang Kongreso,” he began. “Pangunahin siyempre po dito ang Bangsamoro Basic Law.”

He challenged opponents of the law to themselves offer a better solution.

Kung wala kayong alternatibo, ginagarantiya lang ninyong hindi maaabot ang pagbabago. Ilang buhay pa ang kailangang ibuwis para magising ang lahat sa obligasyong baguhin ang sirang status quo sa Muslim Mindanao?” he said.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, in his speech opening the third and last regular session of the 16th Congress, also mentioned the BBL briefly.

“We will continue to promote lasting peace and sustainable development in Mindanao through a Bangsamoro Basic Law that is consistent with our Constitution,” Drilon said.

If these pronouncements are an indication, then a Bangsamoro law would have been passed before the Aquino administration ends.

Crossing the wood bridge leads one to the cornfield in Tukanalipao. Photo by JAKE SORIANO
Crossing the wood bridge leads one to the cornfield in Tukanalipao. Photo by JAKE SORIANO

Yet advocates say the bill pending in the House of Representatives, HB 5811, is already too far away from the essence of what was agreed on by the MILF and the Philippine government in both the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

Signed after 17 years of negotiations on Oct. 15, 2012 and on March 27, 2014, respectively, the FAB and the CAB had as cornerstones the recognition of the Bangsamoro identity; respect for the Bangsamoro people’s right to self-determination; and addressing legitimate grievances of and historical injustices against the Bangsamoro people.

A paper by a joint team of Tulay Kalinaw Mindanao, Balay Mindanao Foundation and the Mindanao Civil Society Organizations Platform for Peace lists the deviations of HB 5811 from the essence of the FAB and the CAB.

Revisions of key phrases carry significant implications.

The term “territory” was changed to “geographic area” or simply “area,” “central government” to “national government,” and “Bangsamoro” to “Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.”

“The change in nomenclature changes the framework and certain key principles that went into the process of designing the relationship between the autonomous entity,” the paper read.

HB 5811, the paper says, has also reduced the exclusive powers of the Bangsamoro over natural resources by expanding exceptions.

Other provisions of the bill, more than curtail the proposed autonomy of the Bangsamoro, go as far as diminish powers already presently enjoyed by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The paper also notes “the ‘overkill’ repetition of phrases” that constantly refer to the Constitution, despite the Preamble already mentioning so.

It attributes this to “a very pervasive fear that the BBL would become a platform for eventual secession of the Bangsamoro from the Philippines.”

On the surface, this “ridiculous” fear of secession is “premised on the unfortunate incident in Mamasapano,” the paper reads.

But it notes that the matter runs deeper than Mamasapano.

“Rather, it is about how deep-seated bias, prejudice, and distrust against the Moros” which according to the paper have roots that go “a long way back into history.”

‘You are more likely to die when you go to Maguindanao’

Mamasapano is the “M” in the “SPMS box,” an area in Maguindanao that used to be designated as no man’s land, along with Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Pagatin and Datu Salibo.

Throughout history, the majority of conflict incidents in the province have happened in this area.

Deaths because of conflict are also condensed in the “SPMS box.”

The cornfield where the bloody January incident took place. Photo by JAKE SORIANO
The cornfield where the bloody January incident took place. Photo by JAKE SORIANO

Among the provinces of the ARMM, Lanao del Sur has more incidents of conflict, but conflicts in Maguindanao have led to more deaths.

“You are more likely to die when you go to Maguindanao and there’s an occurrence of violent incident,” said lawyer Laisa Alamia, executive secretary of the ARMM Office of the Regional Governor.

The history of conflict has led to massive displacement.

“Displacement has affected four out of five households in Maguindanao,” Alamia said, citing the findings of a research by the World Bank’s Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System.

Some 125,000 persons were displaced at the height of the military operations after Mamasapano against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Before this, close to a million persons were displaced during the 2000 all-out-war of former president Joseph Estrada.

Operations in the Buliok Complex in 2003 displaced about 400,000.

The 2008 conflict in the aftermath of the aborted Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) displaced more than 700,000.

Lahat, may sugat,” said Alamia.

“Developmental challenges [have been] exacerbated by intergenerational cycles of conflict.”

In the “SPMS box” in particular, very little development has happened until only recently, Alamia said.

She cites the efforts of the administration of ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman, but concedes that structural defects within the region continue to hurt development.

One such defect is that while line agencies have been devolved to the region, national agencies still hold the program funds.

Release of these funds from national line agencies are often delayed, Alamia said.

“So by the time that the project needs to be implemented, it’s already Dec. 31 of the year.”

The present structure also deprives ARMM residents of program activities and projects that residents elsewhere in the country are able to enjoy.

“There are structural infirmities in the ARMM that can only be resolved by a law,” she said.

She was referring to the BBL, calling it “a huge step” in solving the peace and development problems in what remains the country’s poorest region.

Ideal and worst case scenarios

From Mamasapano, it takes an hour and a half to reach Cotabato City, and from there around another hour to get to Camp Darapanan.

There, in the Central Committee Convention Hall, before an audience of journalists from Mindanao and Manila, MILF Chair Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim politely deflects questions about the group’s choice of president in 2016.

But the question keeps coming up, and Murad himself has acknowledged the significance of the issue this late in the Aquino administration.

“What is ideal is that the BBL will be passed as it is now, because we do not want to fail the hopes of our people,” he said.

The worst scenario, meanwhile, according to him, is “a BBL that is not in compliance with the CAB and the FAB.”

If the BBL is not passed within Aquino’s term, the MILF will continue to demand that the FAB and the CAB be implemented by the next president, Murad said.

MILF Chair Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim and his granddaughter during a conversation with journalists at Camp Darapanan. Photo by JAKE SORIANO
MILF Chair Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim and his granddaughter during a conversation with journalists at Camp Darapanan. Photo by JAKE SORIANO

“We hope that the next president will also not be anti-peace.”

Unless the BBL is passed accordingly, organic members of the MILF, he said, “will not participate in the elections, and will not participate in the government.”

The dialogue with the media goes on for over an hour. Mindanao’s only cardinal, Orlando Quevedo, moderates and himself also engages in a conversation with the MILF chair.

“Delay of the BBL also means delay of decommissioning,” Quevedo said.

Near the end of the event, a little girl runs onstage toward Murad. It is his 4-year-old granddaughter.

“I have nine grandchildren and they are very close to me,” Murad tells the room, when asked asked what kind of civilian life he sees for himself, in case the peace process is completed soon.

“I want to retire already, but it still depends on the situation,” he said. “As part of the MILF organization, we are bound by the decision of the group.”