Philippines, Moro Islamic Liberation Front separatists agree on peace deal
Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel group lauds plan to establish new semi-autonomous Muslim area in resource-rich southern region
The Philippine government and the country's biggest Muslim rebel group announced yesterday they had agreed on a plan to end a decades-long separatist insurgency that has killed more than 150,000 people.
The agreement would see the establishment of a new semi-autonomous Muslim area in the Philippines' resource-rich southern region of Mindanao, which the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front 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, achieved in the latest round of peace talks in Malaysia that ended on Saturday, as the "beginning of peace".
"We are happy and we thank the president for this," said Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice-chairman for political affairs.
The two sides said they were aiming for a final peace deal to be achieved before the president's term ends in the middle of 2016. But they also pointed to major obstacles to overcome before a final peace could be achieved.
Aquino said a final agreement would have to be approved by a plebiscite. Such approval is not certain in the mainly Catholic country. A planned peace deal during former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's term crumbled at the final moment in 2008 amid intense opposition.
Ghazali also emphasised that 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 formation of the semi-autonomous region.
There are roughly four million Muslims in Mindanao. They see it as their ancestral homeland dating to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s.
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 in the Philippines, after the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.
An autonomous region was created in parts of Mindanao as part of the MNLF deal. However, Aquino said yesterday that was a "failed experiment", as he outlined corruption and violence in the area. The envisaged new autonomous region would replace the old one.
After decades of Catholic immigration, Muslims are now a minority in Mindanao. But they have insisted that they should be allowed largely to govern the region themselves, as well as control its riches.
Mindanao is home to vast untapped reserves of gold, copper and other minerals, and is also one of the country's most important farming regions.
Aquino said Muslims would have a "fair and equitable share of taxation and revenues" in the new autonomous region. The national government would retain control over defence, security and monetary policy.
The US and British governments - both of which have been closely following the talks - welcomed the agreement, but said more needs to be done.
"One of the most relevant lessons at this point is to recognise that even after an agreement, it won't all be plain sailing and there will still be challenges," Britain's ambassador to the Philippines, Stephen Lillie, said.
Despite the deal, a breakaway group said it would continue to fight for an independent Islamic state. "We do not care if the government and the MILF reached an agreement. We do not want the Bangsamoro entity or whatever they may call it," said Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement.
Additional reporting by Reuters
Path to peace
1972 Muslim rebels in the southern region of Mindanao create the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
1978 One of the MNLF's leaders and fiercest ideologues, Salamat Hashim, splits from the group and vows to press ahead with the fight for an independent Islamic state.
1981 Salamat and Murad Ebrahim form the MILF.
1996 The MNLF signs a peace deal with the government of then-president Fidel Ramos. The MNLF settles for autonomy, and the deal creates the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao encompassing five predominantly Muslim-populated provinces.
2003 Gloria Arroyo, successor of Joseph Estrada who declared all-out war against the MILF, brokers a ceasefire with the MILF, paving the way for talks.
2008 Arroyo's government announces a peace deal that would have given the MILF control over 700 cities and towns. But it falls apart after the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional.
August, 2011 President Benigno Aquino holds secret talks with MILF chairman Ebrahim in Japan, the first time a president and MILF chief have held face-to-face talks.
Oct 7, 2012 Aquino announces a deal with the MILF to create a new autonomous political region.