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House panel votes to retain ‘opt-in’ provision in BBL

The House ad hoc committee on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) on Monday approved a provision in the bill that was vehemently opposed by several lawmakers from Mindanao, with one of them even describing it as "contentious."

Voting 35-17, the panel thumbed down the proposal of Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat to delete the so-called “opt-in provision” contained in Article III Section 3. The provision allows voters in areas contiguous to the envisioned Bangsamoro region to hold a plebiscite to join the new political entity after the BBL is passed.

The revised provision in the newly-issued Chairman and Vice Chairpersons’ Working Draft of the BBL states that any local government unit or geographic area outside the territorial jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro—but which are contiguous to any of the component units of the Bangsamoro and within the area of autonomy identified in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement signed by the government and the Moro National Liberation Front—may opt to be part of the Bangsamoro by filing a petition of at least 10 percent of the registered voters in the local government unit (LGU) or geographic area.

The section further provides that the inclusion of the aforementioned areas in the Bangsamoro shall be effective when approved by a majority of votes cast in the plebiscite of the political units directly affected. However, the petitions for inclusion may only be filed on the fifth and 10th year following the BBL's enactment.

Panel chair Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez originally pushed for the deletion of the opt in provision because he agreed with some of his colleagues’ comment that it constitutes “creeping territorial expansion.” Even the Peace Council tasked by Malacañang to review to Bangsamoro bill had recommended its removal.

That clause, however, found its way to the latest version of the working draft on the BBL following Rodriguez’s consultation with committee vice chairpersons starting May 14.

Contentious provision

An exasperated Lobregat, who lost earlier motions to introduce amendments to the BBL, expressed surprise that the opt in provision was restored in the new draft.

“Bakit naman ganoon? Maawa naman kayo sa amin maski isang beses lang,” he said, an apparent jab at administration allies’ alleged calculated move to disapprove most of the changes proposed in the hearing by other lawmakers.

“This is a very contentious provision everywhere we went, especially in the areas surrounding the Bangsamoro region,” Lobregat added.

South Cotabato Rep. Ferdinand Hernandez warned that approving the provision will cause instability as areas contiguous to the Bangsamoro region “will always be watching their backs.”

“The leaders of these areas will always watch their backs for the next five years over possible encroachment of the Bangsamoro towards their areas,” he said.

Zamboanga Sibugay Rep. Belma Cabinalo said there shouldn’t be any more plebiscite to be held after the BBL is passed since the peace panel already knew which areas want to be included in the Bangsamoro region in the past 17 years it has been negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“If we’re going to wait five years, the people in my area will wonder what will happen in the next five years,” she said.

Democratic option

Maguindanao Rep. Bai Sandra Sema, a vice chairperson of the panel, said her colleagues put the opt-in provision back because there are also Bangsamoros outside the core territory who might want to join the new political entity after the BBL’s passage.

“Instead of taking up arms, we’re giving them a chance to be recognized and for their voices to be heard,” she said.

Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong defended the opt in provision as a “democratic” clause his colleagues shouldn’t be afraid of.

“If there’s dramatic sense regarding the development and upliftment of the quality of life of the Bangsamoro, we shouldn’t stop the people in the contiguous areas who have expressed their willingness to join [the Bangsamoro],” he said.

Antipolo Rep. Romeo Acop, who was previously opposed to the opt-in provision, said he had a change of heart because he saw the clause as a way for local officials to prove themselves.

“This will give the chance to future leaders of the Bangsamoro entity to prove themselves, their worth in order to attract their Muslim brothers [to join the Bangsamoro]. Now, it will be up to the leaders of the areas where our Muslim brothers are located to prove their worth. Kung magaling sila, I don’t think they have anything to be afraid of,” he said. —KBK, GMA News