MANILA: The Philippines' House of Representatives on Wednesday approved on the third and final reading a proposed bill granting self-rule to the Southeast Asian country's Muslim minority.
With 227 votes in the affirmative, 11 negative and two abstentions, the lower chamber approved House Bill 6475, an act seeking to provide the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL).
Al-Hajj Ebrahim Murad, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), hailed this development, saying it is a step forward to achieving lasting peace on the conflict-stricken island of Mindanao.
The approval came after President Rodrigo Duterte certified as “urgent” the proposed BBL, which seeks to create a new Bangsamoro political entity with enhanced autonomy.
Hours after the president certified the measure as urgent, the House of Representatives began the period of interpellation on the BBL Wednesday afternoon. Five Mindanao politicians urged their colleagues to help unite the nation as they presented HB 6575.
“The time is ripe for our stories as Bangsamoro, as Mindanaoans, to be told on our own viewpoint,” said Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity Committee Vice Chair Amihilda Sangcopan in her sponsorship speech.
Sangcopan, along with Deputy Speaker Bai Sandra Sema; Peace, Reconciliation and Unity Committee Chair Ruby Sahali; Committee on Muslim Affairs Chair Mauyag Papandayan; and Local Government Committee Chair Pedro Acharon, delivered separate sponsorship speeches for the proposed measure.
“I request each and every member of this House of Representatives to look into your hearts and seek an answer to the problem of national and cultural divide that has plagued the republic for 400 years,” Papandayan said.
Sema urged her colleagues to grab the “opportunity to make things right” for the Bangsamoro people.
Meanwhile, Sahali called the vote for the BBL as a vote for the entire nation. “The success of the Bangsamoro is the success of the Filipino people, because we, the Bangsamoro people, are an indispensable part of our national identity.”
Acharon said he believed the passage of the BBL would have implications for peace and security in the country. “All of us have only one common objective, and that is to stop the cycle of violence and bring just and lasting peace,” he said.
Murad, following the approval of the BBL at the lower chamber, said they were optimistic that the bill would also be passed in the Senate, which is still working on the amendments to the measure as of press time.
Senate majority leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, chairman of the sub-committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, said they are “on track” with the BBL.
“These past two days and nights disproved the disbelievers that the Senate can hack it. At this time, the landmark measure is being forged by senators across party lines,” he said.
In a phone interview, Murad told Arab News that the Senate had also assured them that their version of the bill will be passed within the day.
Both houses of Congress have earlier promised to pass the proposed BBL before they go on recess. A bicameral (bicam) conference committee will then be held during the break to resolve conflicting provisions of the House and Senate versions of bills.
“We are still continuing our engagement (with them). The final amendment will be done during the bicam. There are still issues that we want to discuss with both houses. But generally the amendments made are, as far as we are concerned, tolerable to us,” Murad said, adding: “They just need some improvement.”
Once both chambers have reconciled and finalized the bill, Duterte is expected to sign the BBL in time for his State of the Nation Address at 4 p.m. on the same day (July 23).
Murad said the next stage will be ratification.
“So within 120 days, it has to be ratified, so we will be conducting a plebiscite on the affected areas,” the MILF chair said, adding that the president is targeting November for the plebiscite.
“Then the Bangsamoro Transition Authority will be established,” Murad continued.
“The Bangsamoro people have long been waiting for those. They know it is their only hope in order to attain peace and prosperity in the Bangsamoro homeland,” he said.
“We are hoping that everybody is now rejoicing and will be supporting the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” he added.
Murad admitted, though, that the BBL would not solve all the problems in Mindanao in an instant. “The security problem in Mindanao cannot be solved overnight but this will be a very important step forward to address the peace and order situation,” he said.
Fr. Elizeo Mercado, OMI, when asked if he believed that the BBL would lead to lasting peace in Mindanao, said: “It may, but (there’s) no guarantee because the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and the ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) are not on board.
The BBL is the political and legislative track of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed between the government and the MILF in 2014.
Duterte, since he assumed the presidency in 2016, has continuously pushed for the passage of the law as he vowed to work “very hard” to address injustices committed against the Moro people. And in April, the president said he “might resign” if the bill is not passed before the end of May.