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Philippine govt, rebels agree on Muslim region under peace plan

Publication Date : 08-10-2012


After talks lasting 15 years, the Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group have agreed to a peace plan to end more than four decades of separatist insurgency in the south that killed more than 120,000 people.

In a nationally televised address yesterday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said his government had reached a "framework agreement" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to set up an autonomous region to be administered by Muslims, a minority in this Catholic-majority country.

"This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao," he said, referring to the country's main southern island.

Parts of Mindanao are claimed by the MILF as the "ancestral homeland" of Filipino Muslims.

"It brings all former secessionist groups into the fold. No longer does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aspire for a separate state," said Aquino.

"We are happy and we thank the President for this," MILF vice-chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying from Mindanao.

The draft agreement is the culmination of an arduous process of "exploratory" peace talks with the MILF that have been sporadically punctured by violence. The deal is a road map for settling the most sensitive issues, including the extent of political and economic powers, revenue-sharing in the resource-rich region, and the territory of the homeland, to be called Bangsamoro.

The new entity will replace an existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), forged from an earlier peace deal with another Muslim rebel group. The ARMM, which has a population of around four million, is among the country's poorest and worst-governed regions. In particular, islands in the far south are notorious hot spots for terrorism and lawlessness. Aquino called the ARMM a "failed experiment".

He stressed that a final peace accord in the Malaysia-brokered talks is not yet a done deal.

"The work does not end here," he cautioned. But officials expressed optimism that the process would be finished before the end of his term in 2016.

A planned peace deal during the term of previous president Gloria Arroyo crumbled in 2008 at the final moment amid intense domestic opposition.

Analysts say security concerns in this volatile corner of the Philippines will likely persist even with a final peace deal with the 12,000-strong rebel group.

"There will still be a lot of law-and-order problems," said security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, pointing to the presence of a hardline breakaway MILF group, as well as local warlords and the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist and bandit group once linked to Al-Qaeda.

Professor Banlaoi believes that disarming the MILF in a region awash with illegal and legal firearms will be tough even with an accord in place.

"From what I hear, the rebels want to assert the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their families," he said.

The MILF hailed the breakthrough at the latest round of peace talks, which ended last Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, as the "beginning of peace". Malaysian Premier Najib Razak said in a statement that the "historic deal" will protect the "rights, dignity and future prosperity of the Bangsamoro people", while at the same time preserving the "sovereignty and constitution of the Philippines".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the peace deal, calling it "a testament to the commitment of all sides" to peacefully resolve the conflict in the south.

The agreement is scheduled to be signed next Monday in Manila, and be witnessed by Aquino and Datuk Seri Najib.


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