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  • Jul 14, 2014
  • Updated: 12:40pm
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PHILIPPINES

Philippine government and MILF rebels sign peace pact

Negotiators put their names to deal that aims to create new Muslim-majority autonomous region by 2016 and bring peace to Mindanao

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:07am

Muslim rebels and the Philippine government put their decades of bitter hostility to one side yesterday to sign the preliminary peace pact which, it is hoped, will bring one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies to a close.

President Benigno Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim witnessed the signing in a ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila.

"I come in peace and to forge a partnership of peace on the basis of the framework agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government," Murad said in a speech at the palace just ahead of the signing.

"We extend the hand of friendship and partnership to the president and Filipino people."

Aquino, who has driven the process since assuming office in 2010, also hailed the agreement as a chance to "finally achieve genuine, lasting peace".

Murad became the first MILF chief to visit the presidential palace, signifying the optimism from both sides about finally ending a four-decade conflict that has claimed 150,000 lives. The pact aims to deliver a final peace deal by 2016.

Under the plan, the 12,000-strong MILF would give up its quest for an independent homeland in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao in return for significant power in a new autonomous region.

The MILF's leadership, the government and independent observers have all warned the path towards peace remains littered with obstacles, and that yesterday's signing does not guarantee an end to the conflict.

"As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Much work remains to be done in order to fully reap the fruits of this framework agreement," Aquino said in his speech just before the signing by both sides' chief negotiators.

Ebrahim's deputy for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, expressed similar caution. "We feel honoured to be welcomed in Manila, but I must stress this is just the beginning of the peace journey," he said just before flying to the capital.

Muslim rebel groups have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent Mindanao, which they consider their ancestral homeland dating back to a time before Spanish Christian colonisation in the 1500s.

The estimated four million to nine million Muslims are now a minority in all but some areas of Mindanao after years of Catholic immigration.

The conflict has left huge areas of Mindanao, a resource-rich and fertile farming region, in deep poverty.

It has also led to the proliferation of unlicensed guns, warlords who battle over fiefdoms, and smaller but more militant Islamic separatist groups who have been able to create strongholds in lawless areas.

The MILF is the biggest and most important remaining rebel group, after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.

That peace pact led to an autonomous region in Mindanao that Aquino described last week as a "failed experiment" due to the corruption and worsening poverty there. It will now disappear under the new autonomous region.

Some of the MNLF's leaders have voiced anger at seeing their power base dissolve, and have warned they may be prepared to take up arms again.

Fresh attacks by the MNLF or small Islamic groups who still want independence are among the potential obstacles to the peace process.

Another is potential opposition from Catholic politicians and business leaders. The nation's parliament, dominated by Catholics, will have to approve the laws of the new autonomous region.

However, experts have said that Aquino, who is one of the most popular presidents in the country's history, may be able to convince the country's Catholic majority to support the plan.

The two sides have set 2016 as a deadline because that is when Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down after serving a single six-year term.

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