The history and implications of the Bangsamoro Organic Law

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Now that the Bangsamoro Organic Law has been passed, issues have been raised not only about its language, but about its consistency with past agreements. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are laws, and then there are legacies.

After more than two decades of talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) has finally been ratified by the 17th Congress, with a ceremonial signing by the president in Malacañang Palace last Aug. 6.

As President Rodrigo Duterte handed MILF Chairman Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim a copy of the legislation, he said that he hopes it will “finally end decades of conflict that is rooted in the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination and recognition of their unique identity.”

This is the same hope which the Bangsamoro people have carried in their hearts through decades of war and conflict — through military operations and misencounters, through displacement and death.

It was only a month ago when the Congress bicameral conference committee on the Bangsamoro Organic Law approved what is now the most recent document in a long history of legislative measures for genuine autonomy in the south.

This new organic law is the promise of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The light, however, feels no less distant.


At the heart of the Mindanao peace process which gave birth to the BOL is the struggle of the Bangsamoro people to assert their right to self-determination. This assertion, however, tends to be limited by the language of lawmaking.

And while their assertion is solid in the language of history that predates the Philippines, the language used in legislation is the language of the Philippine Constitution.

The BOL is drafted to affirm the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination through legislation, as it seeks to address decades, if not centuries, of historical injustices committed against the Bangsamoro people. Bangsamoro Organic Law

However, the language of the new organic law seems to suggest dilution instead of affirmation. “Right to self-determination” has been edited to the “right to chart their political future through a democratic process that will secure their identity and posterity,” while the words “asymmetrical political relationship” and “parity of esteem,” both of which were also in the 2014 draft of the said law, have been deleted entirely.

But beyond technicalities, the more striking change is seen in terms of the language of ownership. While all final drafts by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the House of Representatives, and the Senate clearly state whose voice is embodied by the then proposed legislation — “We, the Bangsamoro People” — the ratified BOL takes on a different tone:

“In recognition of the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people and other inhabitants in the autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao [...] the Filipino people, by the act of the Congress of the Philippines, do hereby ordain and promulgate this Organic Law.”

The law shifts from a language of ownership that says “ours” to a language of distinction that says “theirs.” In the same way the Bangsamoro is displaced from the lands of their ancestors, they are also displaced in the language of the law.


While the Philippines built itself as a nation colonized and plundered, treaties and other documents leading to its so-called independence have consistently undermined existing political structures and established communities — nations, even — of peoples in the peripheries, despite the latter’s strong objections to the language of these documents.

Take, for example, the 1898 Treaty of Paris, through which Spain relinquished its claim over its colonies. As Spain “cede[d] to the United States the archipelago known as the Philippine Islands,” it also unjustly annexed to a colonized country the lands which the Bangsamoro people successfully defended against the Spanish.

Despite strong objections from Bangsamoro leaders, the United States would also eventually cede to the Philippine Republic areas it never owned nor conquered. In 1921, leaders in Sulu wrote to the United States government and said that “it would be an act of great injustice to cast our people aside, turnover our country to the Filipinos in the north to be governed by them without our consent and thrust upon us a government not of our own people, nor by our people, nor for our own people.”

In the 1924 Zamboanga Declaration, leaders from Maguindanao, Lanao, and Zamboanga wrote, “it is our firm intention and resolve to declare ourselves independent Constitutional Sultanate to be known to the world as Moro Nation,” while the 1935 Dansalan Declaration of the Meranaws declared that “our public land should not be given to other people other than the Moro Nation.”

All these early assertions fell on deaf ears.


Decades later, the 1976 Tripoli Agreement was signed between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front. It will later become the basis for the “establishment of autonomy in the Southern Philippines within the realm of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.” However, the autonomous region’s initial 13 provinces was reduced to five provinces and two cities by virtue of a plebiscite.

Thus begins the era of the Bangsamoro having to vote in a plebiscite to be part of a region that represents their people, now a minority in the lands their forefathers fought for.

Their history speaks of war victors and lands unconquered, that to ask them to cast a vote so they can be part of a region that is rightfully theirs is borderline unreasonable, especially when one annexed to a country without their consent. The recently passed BOL is no exception, as it requires six municipalities and 39 barangays to not only vote yes to the plebiscite, but for their mother units to vote yes on their behalf as well.

Meanwhile, history tells us of the provinces of Sultan Kudarat and North Cotabato which required no plebiscite when both were carved out of what used to be the “Empire Province of Cotabato.” The municipalities of President Quirino and Esperanza were added to the province of Sultan Kudarat. All it took was Marcos’ Presidential Decree 341, which also then renamed the municipality of Lambayong to “Mariano Marcos,” the name of the dictator’s father. It was reverted back to its original name by RA 6676 in 1988.

History also tells us of sultanates and kingdoms annexed to a country of the colonized and conquered without any plebiscite, despite objections from the Bangsamoro people. When land is taken away from the Bangsamoro, why don’t they get to vote on it? When the Bangsamoro tries to take back what it is rightfully theirs, why do others have to decide on their claim?


Located more than a thousand kilometers south of Manila is Camp Darapanan, the seat of MILF leadership. On the way to the camp, one can see handmade banners made of green cloth lining the streets of Cotabato City and Maguindanao, with the words “Alhamdulillah, Bangsamoro Government” written with white paint.

The banners are from six years ago, when the Framework Agreement was presented to an emotional audience, and where the realization that a new autonomous region was within reach dawned on the consciousness of the Bangsamoro people.

The words on the banners may have faded but they are still legible despite age. “Praise be to Allah.” Bangsamoro Organic Law

These are the same banners that greeted more than 50,000 MILF members and supporters last month, as they followed the roads to Darapanan yet again, this time for the Bangsamoro Consultative Assembly. During the program, MILF Vice Chairman and Bangsamoro Transition Commission Chairman Ghazali Jaafar handed over a copy of the BOL to Ebrahim, who then turned to the audience as he showed the last page which bore the signature of the president.

“Transitioning from a revolutionary organization and running a government will be a challenge, and we will be facing this challenge squarely because there is no other way,” Ebrahim said to the audience.

Pushing for a new Bangsamoro law has always been part of the MILF’s assertion since the time of the Ramos administration, based on the government’s commitment to affirm the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination.

During the assembly at Camp Darapanan, Jaafar said that the BOL is “not a perfect law for us but certainly it is a good law for us to start with.”

Now that the BOL has been passed, issues have been raised not only about its language, but also about its consistency with past agreements. Despite these, the MILF has accepted the BOL.


In an editorial published by the MILF Committee on Information last Aug. 2, it explained that the people of the struggle — the mujahideen — “subscribe to the idea that it is men more than law that determines or assures the success of organizations, nations, and states. The imperfections in the law are paid for or balanced by sustained constructive engagements with government and their agencies, including private institutions, as well as the international communities.”

The language of another may have failed the Bangsamoro people countless times, but it takes more than language to win the peace and claim justice for all.

While the ARMM regional government has won numerous gains for the Bangsamoro in terms of good governance and institutional reform, the new Bangsamoro region will require changes never attempted before. Future leaders of the region must ensure that the transition to this new region will be seamless, as the transition offers the possibility of finally solving old problems that persist despite the region’s best efforts in the past decade.

In 2018 alone, tens of thousands have had to evacuate from their homes in Maguindanao, Basilan, Lanao del Sur, and Sulu, due to military operations against local terror groups. Countless communities need to be rebuilt, including the city of Marawi which means so much to Bangsamoro history and Meranaw identity. While figures on education, health, and employment have been improving in recent years, poverty continues to persist across the region and sociopolitical power remains in the hands of the few.

There are laws, and there are legacies. In the case of the Bangsamoro, the fate of their people lies not only in legislation but in the long history of persuasion and perseverance.

This legacy is not for any president or legislator to claim or own, but for the Bangsamoro people to build and work on. The work continues.