Philippine President Benigno Aquino called on Wednesday for autonomy for a Muslim region to end an insurgency there despite widespread misgivings after Muslim rebels killed 44 policemen.
Aquino has promised the largest Muslim rebel group in the predominantly Christian country autonomy in the southern region known as Bangsamoro in exchange for peace.
But the Senate and House of Representatives suspended work on legislation for the autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, amid an outcry after fighting on the island of Mindanao on January 25 in which the 44 policemen and 18 rebels were killed.
Aquino, in a speech to a crowd of supporters marking the 29th anniversary of a “People Power” uprising that ended dictatorship, said the country had to seize the opportunity for peace.
“To all those calling for a stop to the peace process, and to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, we ask: How can they guarantee that such an opportunity will present itself once more?” he asked.
The killing of the police commandos by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels has blown up into Aquino's biggest political crisis.
Some lawmakers, Catholic bishops and civil society groups have called on him to resign because of what they see as his poor handling of the conflict.
Aquino said everyone was obliged to pursue peace.
“It is only by realizing a just and lasting peace that we can say that the sacrifices of those who fought in EDSA -together with those who gave their lives to put an end to the sowing of fear and violence in society - were worth it,” he said, referring to the “People Power” uprising.
The 45-year insurgency by the MILF has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich south.
Committed to peace
The rebels said last month's clash happened because police had not informed them of an operation to arrest two wanted militants. They say they remain committed to peace.
Earl Parreno, an analyst at the Institute of Political and Electoral Reform, said the president's stand on the autonomy law could cost him.
“Aquino is taking a big gamble and risking whatever is left of political capital,” he said.
Parreno said that if Congress passed a diluted law, the rebels would likely reject it. If Congress passed a law based on rebel proposals, Aquino could face a backlash from the public.
“I don't see any win-win situation,” he said.