SENATOR Francis Escudero on Tuesday hit the government’s chief peace negotiator, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, for claiming that the annual budget for the proposed Bangsamoro region is P35 billion when it is much closer to P75 billion.
Ferrer has been insisting that only P35 billion would go to the prospective Bangsamoro government—P27 billion in a block grant, P7 billion in development funds and P1 billion in a transition fund.
But Escudero, chairman of the Senate finance committee, disputed Ferrer’s claim and said P75 billion a year was a conservative estimate.
“We have not included the revenue generating power of the BBL-- they can impose fees and charges. We have not included the royalties share from the natural resources, which were also given to them. Overall, it will surely reach that amount (P75 billion). That is even our conservative estimate,” Escudero said.
The senator said it is good to clarify this to Ferrer because she might not understand the agreement she entered into when she signed off on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
“It should be a line item [budget]. We should know where the funds will go. We in the national government, there’s a line item [budget]... Perhaps, the Bangsamoro Parliament should not also have that, and should follow the decision and direction of the government in spending funds. There should be accountability and transparency,” Escudero said.
With so much of the Bangsamoro budget in a lump sum, Escudero said, the chief minister of Bangsamoro government might end up having a bigger intelligence fund than the President of the Philippines.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., chairman of the Senate committee on local government, said P75 billion for the Bangsamoro was bigger than the budget of the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police.
Marcos suspended hearings on the BBL after 44 police commandos were killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, by Muslim rebels, including fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with which the government is in peace talks.
Marcos had scheduled a resumption of the BBL hearings on April 13, after receiving reports from the MILF, the police board of inquiry, and the three Senate committees that investigated the Jan. 25 incident.
Escudero said he will quiz Ferrer on where will the P75 billion would go and how they can justify this huge amount to other regions and provinces.
While acknowledging that the Bangsamoro area has been neglected for several years and suffered destruction from war, Escudero said it would still be difficult for them to justify the P75 billion budget.
“I also do not want to think that if one sows terror and challenges the government to a war, one will be rewarded in the end if they talk to you and talk peace,” said Escudero.
Escudero and Marcos questioned the huge annual budget for the Bangsamoro and raised the possibility that the MILF might use the funds to buy arms for their combatants who will later fight the government and launch a war against it. They also cited reports that the MILF was continuing to recruit fighters, establish camps and manufacture weapons.
These were the same views expressed by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who warned the government against talking peace with the MILF after the Mamasapano massacre.
Marcos said there was no assurance that the funds would not go into the pockets of the region’s leaders, as they did under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Escudero also raised the alarm over the absence of checks and balances when it came to the P75 billion budget.
“How can we have checks and balances when this P75 billion is a block grant and a lump sum?” Escudero said.
Cayetano on Tuesday took exception to warnings that the MILF could go to war if the BBL is not passed or is watered down in Congress.
“We’re taking a weak position so the MILF continues to take advantage not only of our government, but also of our people. And this is not the road to peace. This is the road to disaster,” Cayetano said.
Cayetano, the most vocal critic of the BBL after the Mamasapano massacre, said he was not advocating war, but the government should not be cowed by the MILF, which he said was not a trustworthy partner in the peace process.
As it is, he said, the administration seemed to be inviting the MILF to take over Mindanao.
“It is as if we are telling them it’s okay with us if they turn Mindanao into their terrorism camp as long,” he said.
Cayetano said he had evidence that the government knew that the MILF was coddling Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan.
“Is this the reason the BBL is being rushed by the Palace, because as we get to know more, more and more people are saying, ‘Can we trust the MILF?’” he said.
He said he resumption of the hearings on the BBL would be a good venue for the MILF and the peace panel to answer all these questions.
“For me, every relationship has to start with truth and not a lie. So before talking about BBL, we will talk first if the MILF can be trusted. In this report (from the MILF on the Mamasapano incident)... is not changed, this shows they cannot be trusted since they fooled us here,” Cayetano said.
He said the MILF report, which justified the killing of the 44 police officers a self defense, was a deception and an insult to the intelligence of the Filipino people.
Reacting to MILF vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar’s threat to bring their case to the United Nations, Cayetano said nothing would come of this because the MILF was never recognized.
Cayetano also said that so far, only the government peace panel agreed to the terms of the BBL, which has not been passed by Congress.
“They cannot file this with the UN. They don’t have a leg to stand on. In fact, the UN will be a forum for the Philippines to show that it is Muslims who are oppressing their fellow Muslims,” he said.
Oppression, the UN will find out, does not compel from the government or Christians, but from an armed extremist group, he said.
“The battle in Mindanao is not about the rich against the poor nor the Christians against the Muslims. This is simply the MILF pretending to be the savior of their Muslim brothers when in fact, they were among those causing the sufferings of their fellow Muslims,” he added.
On Tuesday, civil society groups associated with the administration aired their support for a national peace summit to discuss the BBL.
Last week, President Benigno Aquino III named Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., chairman and chief executive of Ayala Corp. Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, former ambassador to the Holy See & Malta Howard Q. Dee, as well as peace advocate and youth leader Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, as the conveners of the peace summit.
Groups that emerged after the BBL came under strong criticism, such as the Initiatives for International Dialogue, All-out Peace Now, and Generation Peace Youth Network issued statements Tuesday in support of the President’s national peace summit. With Sandy Araneta
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