Philippines and Muslim rebels agree on landmark peace deal

Philippines and Muslim rebels agree on landmark peace deal

Piyale Madra - MANILA
Philippines and Muslim rebels agree on landmark peace deal

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels carrying rocket propelled grenades (RPG) patrol prior to a press conference in Mindanao in this 2011 photo. AFP photo

Manila and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group announced yesterday an agreement to end a 40-year conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people.

The agreement calls for a new semi-autonomous Muslim area in the resource-rich southern Philippine region of Mindanao, which the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) regards as its ancestral homeland. “This framework agreement paves the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” President Benigno Aquino said in a nationally televised address.

“It brings all former secessionist groups into the fold. No longer does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aspire for a separate state.” The MILF hailed the breakthrough, which was achieved in the latest round of peace talks in Malaysia that ended on Oct. 6, as the “beginning of peace.”

“We are happy, and we thank the president for this,” MILF Vice Chairman for Political Affairs Ghazali Jaafar told Agence France-Presse by phone from his base in Mindanao. While Aquino did not say when the final peace pact would be achieved, Jaafar said the two sides were aiming for the middle of 2016 when the president’s term ends.

Plebiscite needed

Aquino said the new autonomous region would be named Bangsamoro, after the Moros living there.

“This framework agreement is about rising above our prejudices,” the president said. “It is about casting aside the distrust and myopia that has the plagued efforts of the past.” Both Aquino and Jaafar pointed to major obstacles that still needed to be overcome before a final peace could be achieved. Aquino said a final agreement would have to be approved by a plebiscite, but such approval is not certain in the mainly Catholic country.

A planned peace deal during previous president Gloria Arroyo’s term crumbled in 2008 at the final moment amid intense domestic opposition. Jaafar also emphasized the agreement reached over the weekend was just a “road map,” and said there had been no deal yet on significant issues such as the extent of the territory to be included in the new semi-autonomous region. There was also no indication as to when MILF fighters would lay down their arms.

Vast reserves of gold

There are roughly 4 million Muslims in Mindanao, which they see as their ancestral homeland dating back to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s. After decades of Catholic immigration, Muslims are now a minority in Mindanao but they insist they should be allowed largely to govern the region themselves and control its riches. Mindanao is home to vast untapped reserves of gold, copper and other minerals, as well as being one of the country’s most important farming regions.

The MILF and other Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for independence or autonomy in Mindanao since the early 1970s. The rebellion has claimed more than 150,000 lives, most in the 1970s when all-out war raged, and left large parts of Mindanao in deep poverty. The MILF is the biggest and most important remaining rebel group, after the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.

The MILF first began peace talks with the government in 1997. They fell apart when then-President Joseph Estrada declared an all-out war against the rebels in 1998. Arroyo then brokered a ceasefire with the MILF in 2003 and began peace talks. But after the 2008 peace deal fell apart, two MILF commanders led attacks on mainly Christian villages in Mindanao, with the unrest killing 400 people and displacing about 750,000 others.