Disarmament, amnesty part of Manila-MILF pact

Bloomberg, MANILA

Mon, Jan 27, 2014 - Page 5

The Philippines has completed an accord that will disarm the nation’s largest Muslim rebel group and help end decades of conflict in resource-rich Mindanao.

An independent body will conduct a census of the fighters, inventory their weapons and schedule an arms phase-out in the next two years, during which programs will be implemented to help the Philippine rebels’ transition to civilian life, according to the agreement signed on Saturday by the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled development of the southern region. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao, unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated US$300 billion and mark a key legacy for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian said.

“It would unlock the natural resources and unleash the human capital of one of the most promising, but underdeveloped areas in Southeast Asia,” said Heydarian, who lectures at Ateneo de Manila University. “Given Mindanao’s substantial untapped economic assets, such integration will further boost the Philippine economy.”

Standard Chartered PLC economist Jeff Ng estimates a peace accord could boost the Philippines’ GDP growth by as much as 0.3 percentage points.

The US$250 billion Philippine economy expanded last year by 7 percent, the fastest pace in three years, according to a median estimate of economists before a report on Thursday.

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. It is also home to much of the country’s Muslim population, about 5 percent of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people, according to estimates by the US’ CIA.

Private armies will be disbanded, six rebels camps will become civilian communities and criminal cases related to the Mindanao conflict will be resolved through pardon and amnesty, under the accord, the last of four needed to complete a comprehensive agreement.

The peace panels also agreed on jurisdiction over waters to be included under Bangsamoro, the new autonomous Muslim political entity targeted by 2016.

Disarmament will start after final agreement and be completed before May 2016, when the first regional elections will be held at the same time as national polls, MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said by telephone on Saturday.

It will be gradual and “commensurate” with other steps, he said.

“There is no problem with the MILF,” Jaafar said. “The apprehension will be on the honest-to-goodness implementation of the comprehensive agreement by the government.”

The incidence of poverty across the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) — a delineation created during a previous attempt at peace — climbed to 48.7 percent in 2012 from 39.9 percent in 2009, according to a report last month.

The Philippine Statistics Authority defines poverty as living on less than US$1.20 a day.

The Philippine government and Muslim rebels agreed on power-sharing last month, on wealth and revenue sharing in July last year and earlier in the year on transitional arrangements.

Heydarian said other rebel groups may seek to spoil the deal, a view shared by Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

Three weeks of fighting in Zamboanga between Philippine government forces and a different Muslim separatist group in September last year killed at least 203 people and delayed peace talks.

“The MNLF has demonstrated its capability to make trouble,” Banlaoi said, referring to the Moro National Liberation Front headed by Nur Misuari, an ex-ARMM governor. “It can undermine the peace dividends; it can spoil the whole process and even hijack the agenda of the new Bangsamoro government.”

Benito Lim, political science professor at Ateneo de Manila University, called the program a short-term arrangement that does not guarantee long-term peace.

An earlier agreement signed with Misuari’s MNLF in 1996 collapsed partly because it “failed to put post-conflict rebuilding mechanisms in place,” Teresita Deles, Aquino’s peace adviser, said in an interview in July last year.

Aquino has asked Philippine lawmakers to pass legislation this year creating Bangsamoro, setting the stage for an autonomous Muslim region before his six-year term ends in 2016.

“Our legislators will take on the crucial role of enacting the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” Deles said in a statement on Saturday from Kuala Lumpur.

“It has been a difficult road getting to here and we know that the path ahead will continue to be fraught with challenges,” Deles said. “In a world looking for peaceful solutions to all troubles, we are grateful that we have found ours.”

Manila will grant amnesty to Muslim guerrillas who are facing or have been convicted on rebellion charges under the newly signed peace pact, Deles said yesterday.

Deles said the amnesty, which still need congressional approval, would only cover MILF fighters and exclude guerrillas who broke off from the group and continue to endanger peace.

Additional reporting by AP