MANILA – Senators and congressmen vowed to amend an existing law to allow another referendum for autonomy and create an expanded autonomous region for Filipino-Muslims in the southern Philippines.
The initiative is in support of the 15-year-old peace talks between the Philippine government and a formerly separatist Muslim group, government officials and rebel leaders said.
Members of Congress wanted to amend the Organic Act that allowed Filipino-Muslims to vote for autonomy for the first time in 1989, which created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said Teresita Deles, peace adviser of President Benigno Aquino.
This will help expand the ARMM with hundreds of Muslim-dominated villages and create the Bangsamoro sub-state in the south, a proposed peace settlement between the Philippine government and the 24-year old Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said Deles.
In response, Congressman Simeon Datumanong, opposition representative from Maguindanao in the south, said, “We will gladly amend the Organic Act, create new legislation and give life to a new political entity in the ARMM, based on the [proposed] peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF.”
“We want to help ensure peace in Mindanao,” said Congressman Karlo Alexei Nograles, an opposition member from the south’s Davao City.
“We support bids for reforms in the ARMM,” said Congressman Hataman Salliman, a southerner and second in command of the congressional committee on peace, reconciliation, and unity.
MILF open to referendum
For the first time, the MILF also expressed openness to the proposed amendment of the Organic Act to allow another referendum for ARMM’s expansion with Muslim-dominated villages.
“That plebiscite will be discussed thoroughly with the government,” said Gazali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, in a radio interview before the reopening of the government-MILF peace talks in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.
“We want the ARMM and villages with Moro population to be part of the new [or proposed] Bangsamoro entity,” Jaafar explained.
In 2008, during the time of former President Gloria Arroyo, the Supreme Court ruled that the proposed ARMM expansion with 712 Muslim-dominated villages was unconstitutional. It was in response to local government officials and congressmen who were against Arroyo. As a result, MILF renegade commanders attacked civilian villages which displaced 700,000 residents.
At the time, the proposed peace agreement did not mention the need for referendum for autonomy although it was a known procedure to implement any executive peace treaty.
“We want to sign a peace agreement with the MILF within a year,” said Philippine government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen at the start of three-day peace talks in Malaysia.
Mohagher Iqbal, MILF’s chief negotiator, said the negotiations face a challenge.
Both parties came from fresh joint-consultations with Mindanao’s key stakeholders such as senators, congressmen, businessmen, religious leaders, ethnic groups, peace groups, and local government leaders regarding the government-MILF proposed peace settlement.
Last month, in Malaysia, both parties signed an agreement entitled “Decision Points on Principles,” which included a list of contentious issues to be ironed out.
Both sides agreed that the expanded ARMM will have a wider political and economic powers, including sharing of revenues (from businesses generated in the south) between local and national governments.
The MILF was part of the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that fought a separatist war that killed 150,000 in the south in the 70s.
In 1978, the MILF became an MNLF faction and continued waging armed struggle after the MNLF forged a pro-autonomy peace settlement with the government, during the time of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But Marcos failed to implement the proposed autonomous settlement (of 98 provinces and 10 cities in the south), and the MNLF continued fighting government soldiers there.
After the overthrow of Marcos by a people-backed military mutiny in 1986, the 1987 Constitution, drafted during the time of President Corazon Aquino included the Organic Act which allowed for the first time, autonomy by referendum among Filipino-Muslims.
In a referendum held in 13 provinces and 10 cities, residents of four provinces in 1989, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Tawi-Tawi, voted to be part of the historic ARMM. Cotabato City, not an ARMM member, was designated as ARMM capital, during the region’s inauguration in 1990.
In 1996, when the MNLF gave up its secessionist stance and forged a pro-autonomy peace settlement with the government during the time of President Fidel Ramos, Congress amended the Organic Act and allowed a second referendum in 2001 that resulted in ARMM’s expansion, with five provinces and one city as members. ARMM is now composed of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi , and Marawi City.
If a government-MILF peace settlement is forged soon, a third referendum for ARMM’s expansion — with Muslim-dominated villages near ARMM — is expected, said peace adviser Deles. (Barbara Mae Dacanay)
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