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A constitutional issue in the BBL debate

HERE shall be created autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and in the Cordilleras, consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities, and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.” – Section 15, Article X of the Philippine Constitution.

After the Constitution was ratified in 1987, Congress created the two regions specified in the Constitution – the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). For Congress now to enact a law creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, on top of the already established ARMM and CAR, would be violating Section 15, Article X, of the Constitution, officials of the Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa) testified before a joint legislative panel assigned to craft a final version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The Philconsa officials – Chairman Manuel Lazaro and President Ferdinand Martin Romualdez – recommended that instead of Congress enacting the BBL, the government should first amend the 1987 Constitution. Or – another option – Congress should just amend Republic Act 679 which created the ARMM, change the name to Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, and provide it with all the additional autonomous provisions for the Moro people, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has agreed upon with the Duterte administration.

President Duterte has made the BBL a cornerstone of his administration, to correct, he said, a “historical injustice” to the Moro people of Mindanao. He hopes to make it part of the federal system of government he seeks to install under a new constitution. But even before Charter change – which may take some time – he hopes Congress can enact a Bangsamoro Basic Law. In case such a law gets delayed or derailed, he said, he has plans to issue an executive order.

During the Aquino administration, a bill for a Bangsamoro Basic Law was filed in the 16th Congress but, despite the administration’s strong support for it, Congress failed to muster a quorum to approve it. It was said then that a big reason for this was the Mamasapano encounter in which 44 Special Action Force commandos of the Philippine National Police were massacred by a number of Moro armed groups, including some members of the MILF.

The BBL cause has now been embraced by new President Duterte. Very likely, he will get the support he needs from Congress, through a law, a constitutional amendment, or both. Philconsa, however, cites a possible challenge to the constitutionality of the BBL as it is now proposed in Congress. It might be best to consider the points it raised in the government’s efforts to achieve its goals for the Bangsamoro.

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