Philippines president seeks to preserve peace during vote
 By Roy Ramos
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines

In a bid to preserve the gains of his initiatives in the restive south, the Philippines’ president has ordered the office in charge of a peace process with the country's one-time largest rebel group to conduct consultations that will lead to an action plan aimed at promoting peace.

Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. told radio dzRB on Sunday that Benigno Aquino III had directed the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process to firm up an action plan for promoting the process.

This will be pursued "in the transition period during the remainder of the current administration's term and up to the assumption of the next administration," he added.

Aquino's six-year term ends in June, at which point new leaders -- and with them, a new political outlook -- will be sworn in on the back of May's vote, raising the chances that large-scale conflict could return to the country’s mineral-rich -- but impoverished -- southern region.

Aquino's order comes as Feliciano Belmonte, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said Thursday that it would take "a miracle" to see the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) passed.

The BBL seeks to create an autonomous political entity in the Philippines’ south and bring closure to a 17-year peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The House of Representatives and the Senate will hold its final session Wednesday Feb. 3.

Sessions will resume after May 23 for the congressional canvassing of votes.

Congress is mandated by law to proclaim a winner 30 days after the presidential election set for May 9.

Coloma Jr. told the state-run Radyo ng Bayan on Sunday that the president's order was issued to the Office of the Presidential Adviser through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.

He quoted chief presidential adviser Teresita Deles as saying the government needs to hold consultations with all the stakeholders, particularly the MILF.

"But measures will include strengthening existing peace bodies and mechanisms, joint bodies for socioeconomic interventions,” Deles was quoted as saying.

The government, Deles said, wants to operationalize the recommendations of the transitional justice and reconciliatory commission regarding "the healing of the wounds of war and moving towards sharpened interfaith and multicultural dialogue and cooperation."

She underlined that it was also very important to undertake the necessary groundwork to ensure the legal political track in the next administration.

"We need to do all that is possible to ensure the full implementation of the CAB [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro] beyond this administration,” Deles said.

The signing of the CAB preceded the drafting of the BBL, which both the Senate and the House of Representatives are still working to pass in the remaining sessions of the 16th Congress.

Local Government Chairman Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos has claimed that the present BBL violates the Constitution, and has put forward a substitute bill titled the Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, or BLBAR.

The Senate is still deliberating on the BLBAR.

Under the peace agreement, the MILF will turn over its members' firearms to the government, which in turn will work for the establishment, through the BBL, of a regional Bangsamoro entity that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Chief peace negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, however, has warned that the decommissioning of the MILF's armed wing will not push through because of the failure of the government to pass the BBL.

Earlier this week, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal called optimism that Congress would pass the BBL "long buried and dead.”

He reiterated the MILF's stand, that it will not accept a watered-down version of the BBL, and that decommissioning of MILF forces --overseen by Turkey's Ambassador Mustafa Pulat -- will not continue due to the failure to pass the law.
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