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    Philippines Gov't, MILF Rebels Sign Historic Peace Deal

    The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group have signed a historic peace deal to formally end decades of fighting that has left over 120,000 people dead.

    Under the deal signed Thursday, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will give up its weapons in exchange for greater political autonomy in the mainly Muslim areas of the southern Mindanao region.

    Speaking at the signing ceremony in Manila, President Benigno Aquino hailed the agreement as a "path that can lead to a permanent change in Muslim Mindanao."



    "This agreement stands as a testament to how far trust and earnestness can move humanity forward. It shows how righteousness, reason and goodwill are the mightiest of instruments in ending conflict. It proves that the search for common ground is infinitely more productive than hegemonic ambition."



    The deal, which is the result of talks that began in 2001, still faces a number of obstacles.

    A MILF splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, has promised to keep fighting the government until full independence is achieved. Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist group said to have ties to Al-Qaida, also operates in the area.

    The Philippine Congress must also pass a "basic law" to create the political framework for the autonomous region, which will be called Bangsamoro. There will be pressure to approve the deal by the time President Aquino's term in office ends in mid-2016.



    Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, an associate professor at Japan's University of Tsukuba, tells VOA that he thinks the deal will be more successful than the previous two efforts to achieve peace with Muslim rebels in 1976 and 1996.



    "The process that led to the (current) eventual agreement has been more open and participatory. I think also the two sides have worked out the details much more, for example wealth and power sharing, access, revenues, and those things."



    Under the agreement, revenue from the autonomous region's vast natural resources would be split with Manila. The region would have its own police force and regional parliament. The national government would keep control over issues of defense, foreign policy, currency and citizenship.

    The Asia Foundation's Steven Rood tells VOA the deal stands to be economically beneficial for all involved.



    "(Mindanao) has vast agricultural potential, it has mineral potential, and it has gas and oil potential - all of which has been held back by conflict. That boost alone will be useful. And of course, making the Philippines more attractive for foreign investment as a whole will also be encouraged by a peace agreement."



    Don Emmerson, the director of Stanford University's Southeast Asia Forum, tells VOA that while the deal will not immediately end all of the country's rebel conflicts, it will likely help.



    "I think it's fair to say of all the various rebel presences in the Philippines, it's this one in the south in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago that has been the deadliest and done the greatest damage to the Philippine economy. So I think if this one can be resolved, the others will become more manageable."



    Emmerson cautions that much depends on how much progress is made in implementing the deal by the end of Mr. Aquino's term, and how committed his successor is to such a peace deal.

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