THE biggest Muslim rebel group signed a historic pact Thursday to end one of Asia’s longest and deadliest conflicts, promising to give up their arms for an autonomous homeland.
Following four decades of fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the peace agreement with President Benigno Aquino III’s government at a high-profile ceremony at the Palace.
“The comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro is the crowning glory of our struggle,” MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad said at the signing ceremony, using the local term for a Muslim homeland.
“With this agreement the legitimate aspirations of the Bangsamoro and the commitment of the government of the Philippines to recognize those aspirations are now sealed.”
The pact makes the MILF and the government partners in a plan to create a southern autonomous region for the Philippines’ Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.
“What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in Muslim Mindanao,” President Aquino said at the ceremony, attended by more than 1,000 people.
He warned, however, that “spoilers,” including political leaders who seek to maintain the status quo in Mindanao, would be dealt with sternly.
“May this stand as a warning to those who wish to derail our path to a final, lasting peace--those who wish to sow divisiveness for self-interest, and those who continue to wield arms to pursue their own agendas: I will not let peace be snatched from my people again,” Aquino said.
“Those who want to test the resolve of the state will be met with a firm response based on righteousness and justice--as we demonstrated in Zamboanga City,” he said, referring to the bloody hostage standoff in the southern city led by the Nur Misuari faction of the Moro National Liberation Front. While the military successfully ended the siege, close to 100 people died in the fighting and at least 118,000 residents remain in evacuation centers.
The Bangsamoro region would cover about 10 percent of the country’s territory, and include the current provinces and cities in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the cities of Isabela and Cotabato, six municipalities in Lanao del Norte, and 39 barangays in six municipalities of Cotabato province.
The MILF, which the military estimates has 10,000 fighters, is easily the biggest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, and the political settlement was greeted with relief and optimism in the south.
“I am really happy. In the face of all the hardship of our parents, we the next generation hope and pray that Christians and Muslims will have peace,” Mona Rakman, 42, a mother of four who lives close to the MILF headquarters, said.
The autonomous region would have its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes, while revenues from the region’s vast deposits of natural resources would be split with the national government.
It would have a secular government, rather than being an Islamic state. The national government would retain control over defense, foreign policy, currency and citizenship.
Under a wealth-sharing agreement, the Bangsamoro will enjoy 100 percent of resources from non-metallic minerals such as sand, gravel and quarry and 75 percent of income from the exploration, development and use of metallic minerals within the region. Only income derived from fossil fuels and uranium will be shared equally between the Bangsamoro and the central government.
There are about 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, roughly 10 percent of the population, according to government statistics. Most live in the south of the country.
However there are no guarantees the peace deal will be implemented by the middle of 2016, a crucial deadline as that is when Aquino is required by the constitution to end his six-year term.
Aquino needs to convince Congress to pass a “Basic Law” to create the Bangsamoro autonomous region, ideally by the end of this year to allow time for other steps such as a local plebiscite.
But even though Aquino’s ruling coalition has a loose majority, there are concerns politicians could reject or water down the proposed law.
The President on Thursday admonished members of Congress not to let their personal interests get in the way of the speedy passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.
“My administration will go all out to forge a principled consensus for enduring security and prosperity. I expect the deliberations in Congress to be characterized by a sincere desire to improve on the Bangsamoro Basic Law--and not by self-interest that only aims to perpetuate an untenable status quo,” he said.
“We must admit that there are those who will champion the status quo to preserve themselves in positions of power and wealth,” the President added.
Powerful Christian politicians in Mindanao are regarded as potential deal breakers, while others elsewhere may see political advantage in opposing the deal to appeal to some Catholics ahead of the 2016 national elections.
The deal is also likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2008 struck down a planned peace deal the MILF had negotiated with Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.
Islamic militants opposed to the peace deal are another threat, and could continue to create enduring violence in Mindanao.
Among the potential spoilers is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an MILF splinter group of a few hundred militants that has carried out deadly attacks in the south in recent years.
“We will continue to fight against the government of the Republic of the Philippines because we are for independence and nothing else,” BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama said by phone from his southern hideout.
The MILF leadership has committed to working with the government to neutralize the threat of the BIFF.
However the MILF will not give up its arms or the identities of its fighters until the basic law has been passed, highlighting the fragility of Thursday’s peace deal.
Under the timetable agreed upon by both parties, the government and the MILF aim to finish a draft of the Basic Law by Monday, March 31.
The document will then be submitted to Congress by May.
The administration expects the passage of the law by December to pave the way for a plebiscite in the prospective Bangsamoro territory by the first quarter of the 2015.
The government aims to put the Bangsamoro Transition Authority in place by 2015 to serve as interim government until the elections in 2016.
Murad on Thursday said the MILF would not monopolize the Bangsamoro but would serve as gatekeepers during the transition period until 2016.
“To be more emphatic, it will not be a government of the MILF but a government of the Bangsamoro,” he said.
Taking a swipe at the BIFF, Murad said the signing of the peace agreement Thursday deprived any other armed groups of a cause for which to take up arms.
The MILF leader also prayed for “an accepting public, and not just a tolerant public” as both sides move towards the implementation of the peace accord.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reiterated his country’s commitment to supporting the peace process.
“Unity cannot be decreed overnight. After so many years, there are no easy shortcuts. Much work remains and there will be setbacks along the way. But the commitment to peace--the commitment I see in this surrounding today--must not waver. We must be steadfast and we must be resolute,” Najib said.
“As we look ahead to a brighter future for Bangsamoro, I pledge Malaysia’s continuing support. We will remain in our role as the third party facilitator, and we will continue working through the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao,” the Malaysian leader added.
United Nations Development Program administrator Helen Clark also hailed the historic signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro. UNDP, in partnership with the World Bank, has provided a comprehensive technical assistance package to support the peace process.
Vice President Jejomar Binay on Thursday expressed hope that the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro will finally bring peace and progress in Mindanao.
In a statement, Binay also urged all Filipinos to support the historic signing.
“I am hopeful that with this act of unity and goodwill, we will finally usher in a new era of genuine and equitable growth and development for our Muslim brothers and sisters and the people of Mindanao,” the Vice President said in a statement.”
Senate President Franklin Drilon urged his colleagues to devote time and effort in scrutinizing the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law when it reaches Congress.
“Soon, the ball will be in Congress’ hands. It is the Congress that will ultimately shape and mold the piece of legislation which will breathe life to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” Drilon said.
The Senate and the House of Representatives had earlier agreed to include the Bangsamoro Basic Law in their priority agenda, and both chambers committed to pass it by the end of the year.
“That is our target because we want to see 2015 as the year when we can submit this for ratification by the areas covered by the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” Drilon said.
In the House, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. renewed his commitment to act with dispatch on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law as soon as it is submitted to Congress.
“We have to examine closely the text and context of the present agreement and the proposed basic law that will be submitted to Congress by the Transitional Commission. It is our belief that for the Bangsamoro, for Mindanao, for the country to attain genuine peace and development, we have to address the root causes of poverty, underdevelopment and exploitation in all its facets,” Belmonte said.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also hailed the signing of the peace agreement.
The group’s president, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, said he hoped the peace pact would be respected by leaders of both parties.
“We rejoice with our countrymen as we mark a milestone in the peace process with the signing of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Villegas said in his pastoral statement.
The Makati Business Club called on Congress to “pursue the path of peace” and to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law.
In a statement, the business group said: “We believe that the success of the peace deal hinges largely on genuine economic development, and the improvement in the quality of the lives of the people, both in the Bangsamoro and in Mindanao as a whole.” With Macon Ramos-Araneta, Maricel V. Cruz, Othel V. Campos, Vito Barcelo, AFP
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