Nobody will say he or she is against achieving peace in Mindanao. It’s a statement that is difficult, even impossible, to disagree with.
Previous administrations have tried to do their part to this end. In 1996, under President Fidel Ramos, the government signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, even as his successor, President Joseph Estrada, declared an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a breakaway unit of the MNLF.
Under President Gloria Arroyo, there was almost a formal signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain—almost, because the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against it and eventually declared it unconstitutional.
President Benigno Aquino III had been banking on passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law under his watch. The proposal had in fact started gaining support from lawmakers—that is, until the January 2015 Mamasapano massacre where 44 members of the Special Action Force died at the hands of a mix of MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. The incident prompted a wave of renewed distrust of the insurgents, and the initiative eventually lost steam.
This time around, it is President Rodrigo Duterte’s turn to try his hand at the tricky exercise.
The President, being a child of Mindanao, is expected to show extraordinary zeal in achieving peace there. In July 2018, two years after he assumed office, he signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law which Congress had earlier passed.
On Monday, Jan. 21, a plebiscite will be held in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as well as the cities of Isabela and Cotabato to determine whether residents approve of the BOL, which would lead to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
On Feb. 6, Lanao del Norte, Aleosan, Carmen, Kabacan, Midsayap, Pikit and Pigkawan towns in North Cotabato and other areas seeking inclusion in the proposed BARMM.
There are petitions challenging the constitutionality of the measure, and it appears impossible that the Supreme Court could act on these before the voting. Thousands of military personnel have been deployed to Mindanao to ensure the safety of the people and the security of the plebiscite.
Many legal experts concede, too, that the law is far from perfect, with loopholes that may be exploited or abused.
Then again, what law is perfect? And what law is not vulnerable to exploitation or abuse?
Specifics of the law lay out the principles that will govern the BARMM and spell out its structures and mechanisms. While it has benefited from Mr. Duterte’s characteristic obstinacy and single-mindedness, its eventual success will be determined by whether the people, assuming the “yes” votes win, are vigilant enough to ensure that it is implemented according to the ideals that shaped it in the first place. Transitions are always difficult, even painful—but progress has never come to those who stayed in the confines of the familiar.
Many challenges face the people of Mindanao. Some of them are known; others may not even be contemplated or imagined at this point. The BOL would only be good on paper if the people who would implement it are not up to the task, or have other agenda. We should brace for disappointments, frustrations and even moments when we might wonder whether the changes are worth all the trouble. However, if we stay focused on the long-term goals of economic improvement, social justice, and long-lasting peace, then turning back will no longer be an option.