The Philippine government yesterday signed a peace accord with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the culmination of years of negotiations and a significant political achievement for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
The deal grants largely Muslim areas of the southern Mindanao region greater political autonomy in exchange for an end to armed rebellion. However, it will not stop all violence in a part of the country long plagued by lawlessness, poverty and Islamist insurgency. Implementing the ambitious accord will also be challenging.
Aquino and leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) witnessed the signing of the agreement in the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose country brokered the peace talks, attended the ceremony.
“In signing this agreement, the two sides have looked not to the problems of the past, but to the promise of the future,” Najib said. “After so many years of conflict, and so many lives lost, it is a momentous act of courage.”
About 1,000 people attended the signing ceremonies, including guerrilla commanders wearing business suits instead of military uniforms, who were stepping into the palace for the first time.
“For generations, fellow Filipinos in the [southern Mindanao] region were embroiled in a cycle of poverty, injustice, and violence,” Aquino said. “If we are to truly address the root causes of conflict, we must close the gap between the region and the rest of Filipino society.”
The peace accord concludes formal negotiations that began in 2001. A ceasefire agreement had been in place since 1997 and has been largely observed by both sides.
More than 120,000 people have died in separatist violence since the 1970s in Mindanao, the main southern Philippine island, which is home to most of the country’s 5 million Muslims.
Other insurgent groups in the south have vowed to keep fighting for full independence. The region is also home to the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist network with international links.
“I will not let peace be snatched from my people again,” Aquino said. “Not now, when we have already undertaken the most difficult and most significant steps to achieve it. Those who want to test the resolve of the state will be met with a firm response based on righteousness and justice.”
Under the accord, called the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the MILF agreed to end violence and a demand for separate state in exchange for broader autonomy. The five-province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better-funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
Bangsamoro is the term used by the rebels to refer to Muslims as well as other ethnic groups in the southern Philippines.
Rebel chairman Murad Ibrahim lauded the “shared victory of the Bangsamoro and the Filipino people.”
He said the agreement “finally brings with it the restoration of the identity, powers and resources of the Bangsamoro. These three things which have been ours since time immemorial unjustly taken through colonization and occupation are now returned to us.”