MANILA— The Philippine government has reached a preliminary peace agreement with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, in hopes of putting to rest a 40-year insurgency that has left more than 120,000 dead.
Under the agreement, a new political entity will be created in the southwestern corner of the Philippines, where there is a Muslim majority. The rebel groups believe this part of Mindanao to be their ancestral domain, but in the recent rounds of peace negotiations they backed away from seeking a separate state.
President Benigno Aquino says the agreement “paves the way for final enduring peace in Mindanao.” He says it will bring together the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other smaller Muslim rebel groups in the region.
“This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning workstations and opening doors of opportunity for other citizens,” said Aquino.
The framework for the final peace agreement says the new entity will have power to create its own sources of revenue and to levy taxes. The civil court system in the area will also undergo improvement, while the Shari’ah justice system exclusively for Muslims will be expanded. The national government will have jurisdiction over defense and security, foreign policy, monetary policy and coinage, citizenship and naturalization and the postal system.
Mindanao has fertile land and is known as the country’s “bread basket.” It is also rich in mineral resources such as copper and gold. But the four-decade old insurgency has kept major investors at bay.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar says he is “very happy” with the framework. But he foresees some challenges.
“There are those people who expect that an overnight change can be done and I don’t think that is possible," said Jaafar. "And there are those who are expecting so much after the solution but I don’t think that is possible.”
Jaafar says the leadership has resolved to exert all efforts to “improve the situations” of the people in the region.
Throughout the 15 years that the government had been negotiating with the MILF in fits and starts, violence flared. In 2008, when both parties were in the very last throes of hashing out an agreement, the Philippine high court called some provisions unconstitutional and this sparked a rebellion within the MILF that left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The president’s advisor on the peace process, Secretary Teresita Deles, says the Aquino administration is in a “far better place now in terms of finding peace in Mindanao” that it has ever been.
The president’s office is posting the framework document online and in news publications, with an invitation for the public to weigh in.
The signing of the agreement is expected on October 15th and officials hope a final deal could take effect by 2016, when Aquino's term ends.