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Zamboanga City a part of Bangsamoro?

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Article V on the “Territory” of the Bangsamoro is the most important provision in the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro”. That is, insofar as Zamboanga City is concerned.

This article, if adopted by Congress as part of the “Basic Law of the Bangsamoro”, will determine whether Zamboanga City, or parts of it, can form part of the Bangsamoro territory, either of its core area or as an addition thereto.

This should be the focal point of our public discussion on the framework agreement in light of its direct relevance to the overwhelming sentiment of the people of Zamboanga City for the exclusion of the city in the territorial coverage of the Bangsamoro.

Parenthetically, Zamboangueños had already twice voted in the past to exclude the city from the ambit of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM, which the Bangsamoro seeks to replace. The first instance was on November 19, 1989, in a plebiscite under RA 6734 (the original ARMM Law) and the second on August 14, 2001, in a repeat plebiscite under RA 9054 (the amended ARMM Law).

To the credit of Mayor Isabel Climaco Salazar, the City Council, and Representatives Lilia Macrohon Nuño and Celso L. Lobregat, they all stand united in opposition to the inclusion of Zamboanga City within the coverage of the Bangsamoro, divergent political affiliations notwithstanding.

The entire community, not only its local leadership, must become active participants in this public discourse and take a stand on the issue, especially now that the draft Basic Law on the Bangsamoro is with the Office of the President, as prepared by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and transmitted to the chief executive for certification as an urgent legislative bill. We expect the proposed enactment, duly certified, to be forwarded to Congress when it resumes regular session on July 28, this year.

Not having seen or read the draft Basic Law prepared by the transition commission, we are not certain on whether Art. V (“Territory”) of the framework agreement appears verbatim in the said draft. It is, however, reasonable to assume, considering the composition of the said committee, that the same provision has been carried over to the draft of the Basic Law.  We are also unsure on whether the same provision will be adopted in toto and appear in the draft bill to be certified by the President.  In this connection, we have been told that recently the MILF and government peace panels had to resume their meetings to deal with and resolve on certain issues raised by the President’s legal staff on the draft Basic Law, a clear indication that nothing is final and conclusive insofar as the framework agreement contents are concerned and that the executive  department  has  adopted caution as compass to avoid the kind of painful legal thrashing suffered by the so-called “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain” (MOA-AD) in 2008.

At this point and under the circumstances, we have no alternative but to rely on the article on the Bangsamoro territory as appearing in the framework agreement.

There are two kinds of territory treated in Art. V of the framework agreement. The first is the so-called “core” territory or that which will compose the initial or original area of the Bangsamoro, and the second, that which may be added in the future to the core territory. For simplicity, let us refer to the first as the “original” and the second as the “additional” territory.

Insofar as the original territory is concerned, Sec. 1, Art. V, provides: “The core territory of the Bangsamoro shall be composed of: (a) the present geographical area of the ARMM; (b) the Municipalities of Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan and Tangkal in the province of Lanao del Norte and all other barangays in the Municipalities Kabacan, Carmen, Aleosan, Pigkawayan, Pikit, and Midsayap that voted for inclusion in the ARMM during the 2001 plebiscite; (c) the cities of Cotabato and Isabela; and (d) all other contiguous areas where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least ten percent (10%) of the qualified voters in the area asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to the conduct of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the process of delimitation of the Bangsamoro as mentioned in the next paragraph.”

And insofar as the additional territory is concerned, the relevant provision is found in Sec. 3 of the same article, which reads: “Areas which are contiguous and outside the core territory where there are substantial populations of the Bangsamoro may opt any time to be part of the territory upon petition of at least ten percent (10%) of the residents and approved by a majority of qualified voters in a plebiscite.”

Under the quoted letters “(a)” to “(c)”, Sec. 1 of Art. V of the framework agreement,   Zamboanga City is not listed or mentioned to form part of the core or original territory of the Bangsamoro. That is clear. What is not clear is whether letter “(d”) of the same article makes possible the city’s inclusion in the said territory, by way of either  (1) “a resolution of the local government unit” or (2) “a petition of at least ten percent (10%) of the qualified voters in the area asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to the conduct of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the process of delimitation of the Bangsamoro as mentioned in the next paragraph.”

In order to settle the issue and thereby avoid a legal controversy in the future, there is need for a clarification on or, better still, a precise definition of the term “contiguous areas”, as it appears in letter “(d)”, Sec. 1 of Art. V of the framework agreement in relation to the term “territory” as defined in Sec. 5 of the same article of the agreement. Does the term “contiguous areas”, as used in the context of the opening phrase of letter “(d)”, Sec. 1 of Art. V of the agreement, refer to and cover only land mass?  Or, is  the  said  term meant to be taken in light of the definition of the term “territory”, as provided in Sec. 5 of the same article, which includes within its embrace not only “land mass” but also “maritime, terrestrial, fluvial and alluvial domains, and the aerial domain and the atmospheric space above it.”?

Reduced to a plain proposition, Zamboanga City cannot be included and made part of the core or original Bangsamoro territory under letter “(d)”, Sec. 1 of Art. V of the framework agreement if the term “contiguous area” is defined to cover only “land mass”, the reason being that the city is not connected by land to any of the component areas of ARMM or the cities, municipalities, and barangays listed in the same article of the framework agreement. Otherwise, the possibility of its inclusion exists in light of the definition of the term “territory” under Sec. 5 of Art. V of the agreement which does not treat territory as inclusive only of land mass.

But, how about the additional territory provision found in Sec. 3, Art. V of the agreement? Is it possible for Zamboanga City to be included and added as part of the Bangsamoro territory after the core or original territory shall have been established? Again, the  same word “contiguous”, as found in said section, is crucial and controlling, and the manner by which it is defined as in letter “(d)”, Sec. 1 of the same article, will determine whether the city can form part of the additional area of the Bangsamoro territory. Further, the term “substantial populations” which appears in the same section must be clarified and treated with more precision, otherwise and unattended, varied and conflicting interpretations of the said term may emerge in the future necessitating judicial intervention. Merriam-Webster defines “substantial” as “large” but not wholly in number or amount. But, what is “large”, percentage-wise? Is a significant or considerable number (of the population) but not necessarily a majority intended? Or, is a majority required?  Hence, the need for clarification and a more precise language.

Finally, there is the issue of whether portions of Zamboanga City, specifically barangays or clusters of barangays, and not the entire city, can form part of the core or additional territory of the Bangsamoro. A reading of the relevant provisions of the framework agreement, particularly Sec. 3 of Art. I, indicate an affirmative answer. The said section states that the constituent units of the Bangsamoro shall include “provinces, cities, municipalities, barangays and geographic areas within its territory.”  Clearly, barangays are treated in the framework agreement as separate, distinct, and independent units of the Bangsamoro territory, which means that they can form parts of the said territory notwithstanding the exclusion of their respective “mother LGUs”, i.e., provinces, cities, or municipalities, in the Bangsamoro. In fact, such unique status of barangays is directly recognized in Art. V, Sec. 1 of the agreement which pertinently states that “all other barangays in the Municipalities of Kabacan, Carmen, Aleosan, Pigkawayan, Pikit, and Midsayap (of North Cotabato) that voted for inclusion in the ARMM during the 2001 plebiscite” shall form parts of the core or original area of the Bangsamoro territory. There is no stronger argument than this direct reference to and recognition of barangays in the framework agreement, as individual components of the Bangsamoro, to conclude that barangays or clusters of barangays in the city can form parts of the Bangsamoro territory.

True, there are other vital concerns surrounding the framework agreement which are important, especially those which may indirectly affect the city and its population.  However, the territorial issue is primordial because of its direct and immediate impact on the community.

By Vicente R. Solis, Lawyer




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