The Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group signed a peace deal yesterday that serves as a road map to forming a new autonomous region in the south, but both sides agree much more needs to be done to end more than 40 years of conflict.
A successful agreement would be a boost for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at home and among foreign investors, managing what two presidents before him failed to achieve — peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Manila and the MILF want to set up the region, to be known as “Bangsamoro,” in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before Aquino steps down in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over resources.
They will return to the negotiating table next month in Malaysia to discuss details on wealth and power sharing, as well as the pace of decommissioning the rebels’ 11,000-strong army.
Aquino and MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad held one-on-one talks before the signing of the framework agreement. Murad handed Aquino a miniature gong, which he ritually sounded.
“This is the sound of peace,” he told Aquino.
It was Murad and Aquino’s second meeting since early August last year, when they held secret talks in Tokyo, a turning point in interrupted peace negotiations that have lasted nearly 15 years.
“Much work remains to be done in order to fully reap the fruits of this framework agreement. We have commitments to fulfill, people to lead and dreams to achieve,” Aquino said at the signing ceremony.
Not everyone was so optimistic. Nur Misuari, founder and leader of another Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, said the MILF was “signing its death sentence.”
Misuari said thousands of MILF members were abandoning the group because they do not want to surrender their arms, a claim that the government and rebel peace panel members disputed.
A small breakaway MILF force, criminal gangs, feuding clans and al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamic militants are also actively operating in the area, a reminder to potential investors of the volatile security situation in the south.
Aquino is expected to form a 15-member transition commission that will propose new legislation to create a new Muslim local government for Bangsamoro, the name given by the Moro tribes to their homeland.
A plebiscite by 2015 in Muslim-dominated areas in the south will determine the shape and size of the new Bangsamoro region.
The autonomous government will have greater political powers and more control over resources, including minerals, oil and natural gas, than the existing Muslim-governed entity. Currency, postal services, defense and foreign policy will remain under control of the central government.
The agreement did not give details of the power-sharing arrangement, but it guarantees rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims, unlike a 2008 deal that was struck down by the Philippine Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
“Negotiated political settlement is the most civilized and practical way to solve the Moro problem,” Murad said in his speech. “We in the MILF central committee did not waver and vacillate in pursuing it to the end, despite the devastating three all-out wars in 2003 and 2008 waged by previous Philippine regimes.”