A long way still to go on the path to peace
Experts warn Aquino may not see resolution to Muslim rebellion before his term ends in 2016
A final resolution to a decades-long Muslim rebellion in the Philippines is a long way off with many tough issues yet to be resolved, experts cautioned yesterday, 24 hours after a roadmap for peace was unveiled.
President Benigno Aquino raised hopes of ending the conflict when he announced on Sunday that the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had agreed a blueprint for achieving peace before his term ends in 2016.
Under the plan, the MILF's 12,000 soldiers are laying down their arms and giving up their claim for an independent homeland in southern Philippines, in return for the creation of a semi-autonomous Muslim region.
While both sides acknowledged that many of the most sensitive points of contention still needed to be addressed, experts questioned whether a final agreement could be implemented before Aquino stood down.
"There are real differences between the two parties that they need to thrash out," said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
"Meeting the deadline of 2016 will be difficult … the hardest part of the negotiations has only begun."
The MILF and other Muslim organisations regard the southern region of Mindanao as their ancestral homeland, dating back to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s.
The centuries-old animosities escalated in the 1970s amid a government crackdown, with Muslims taking up arms and establishing formal rebel groups.
About 150,000 people have died in the conflict, most in the 1970s when an all-out war raged. The MILF is the largest and most dangerous rebel group left.
The organisation has tried and failed to negotiate peace deals with previous governments, and its leadership remains cautious this time around even though it has confidence in Aquino.
"This is just a preliminary agreement … there is much work to be done," said MILF vice-chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar.
Among the most contentious points between the two sides is how to share the largely untapped wealth on offer in Mindanao.
The region is one of the country's most fertile farming areas, and is believed to have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold, copper and other minerals available for exploitation.
Aquino said on Sunday that the people in the planned new autonomous region would have a "fair and equitable" share of its wealth, but gave no details.
Steve Rood, Philippine country director for the Asia Foundation and a formal monitor in the peace talks, said he believed a final resolution was possible before Aquino stood down.
"If I was to bet money, I would bet it can be done," said Rood, before adding wealth-sharing remained a big obstacle. "That has been one of the sticking points."
Another problem that has yet to be addressed is the MILF's insistence on a constitutional amendment to give legal certainty to the autonomous region, and potentially give it more power than the government is willing to concede.
Aquino's government has so far resisted changing the constitution because of the difficulties in securing support from the majority Catholic population and the politicians who represent them.