By Roy Ramos
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines
A former rebel leader-turned-Philippine lawmaker expressed concern Tuesday that Congress’ failure to pass a law aimed at sealing a peace process in the Muslim south might push the country’s one-time largest rebel group to "go to war" again.
Rep. Habib Tupay Loong of Sulu province told Anadolu Agency that the Philippines cannot afford to allow war to prevail as "it will only bring death and destruction to the nation and will only divide the people of Mindanao [island]”.
"But I cannot stop the Bangsamoro people if they opt to traverse the dangerous and destructive path of war to preserve their religion, protect themselves and recover their ancestral homeland,” he said.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) seeks to create an autonomous political entity in the Philippines’ mineral-rich -- but impoverished -- southern region and bring closure to a 17-year peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
But with Congress set to adjourn for election campaigning after a final session Wednesday, lawmakers have expressed little hope about its passage before new leaders -- and with them, a new political outlook -- are sworn in on the back of May's vote.
Loong -- a former leader of the Moro Liberation Front, from which the MILF broke away, who returned to civilian life in the late 1970s -- hoped Tuesday that the Bangsamoro people would not opt to return to the “battlefield” to pursue their aspirations for justice.
He showed Anadolu Agency a copy of a speech he delivered Monday to the House of Representatives, stating that the region’s indigenous people had gone to war more than 43 years ago "to liberate themselves from internal colonization, injustices and discrimination".
In the speech, he said that while the Moros are ready to die for their people’s cause, faith and homeland, Islam is a religion of peace and they have sincerely accepted to negotiate and enter into a peace agreement, which later failed.
Loong stressed that that the government could not continue exhausting the patience of the “oppressed people to wait and hope” as such endeavors have their “ultimate time limit”.
"The Bangsamoro problem is not a constitutional problem, but a political problem which should be solved politically," his speech said.
“I am sad that after more than 17 years of arduous negotiation between the Philippine government and the MILF, the BBL, as an instrument of peace, congressmen has failed to pass it.”
Loong expressed disappointment Tuesday over Congress’ failure to pass the law due to lawmakers’ inability to reconcile their differences, and to fulfill their role as legislators by providing the support necessary to finally resolve the Bangsamoro problem and bring peace and unity to the war-torn south.
In a bid to preserve the gains of his initiatives in the restive south, outgoing President Benigno Aquino III has ordered the office in charge of the peace process to conduct consultations that will lead to an action plan aimed at promoting peace.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said Sunday that the government would need to hold consultations with all stakeholders, particularly the MILF, for measures including strengthening existing peace bodies and mechanisms, cease-fire and other joint security mechanisms and joint bodies for socioeconomic interventions.
On Monday, Senate President Franklin Drilon insisted that the 2014 peace agreement with the MILF still holds, calling on the country’s next president to continue the peace process.
“We cannot finish the BBL by the time we adjourn on Wednesday, but that does not mean that the  Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is dead," GMA News quoted him saying.
"I think it is to the national interest that whoever is the next president should pursue the peace process.”
He added that the BBL remained on the agenda, but only for the purpose of concluding the period of interpellations.
A substitute bill titled the Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region has been put forward by Local Government Chairman Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, who has claimed that the present BBL violates the constitution.
Under the peace agreement, the MILF was to turn over its members' firearms to the government, which in turn would 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.
Last 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.
Muslim lawmaker fears new war in Philippines' south
Former rebel leader-turned-congressman concerned that failure to pass law on Muslim south could push one-time largest rebel group to take up arms again
By Roy Ramos