Government, MILF forge Bangsamoro deal

Published by rudy Date posted on October 8, 2012

MANILA, Philippines – The government has reached a preliminary peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with a new political entity called Bangsamoro to be created.

The deal was seen as a major breakthrough in ending a decades-long separatist insurgency in Mindanao.

President Aquino yesterday described the deal in a nationally televised announcement as a “framework agreement” to help jumpstart development efforts in the resource-rich region.

“We have been waiting for this for many long years,” MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said of the road map for establishing a new autonomous region in Mindanao to be administered by minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

“The Bangsamoros are happy. Even the non-Bangsamoros in Mindanao should be happy because finally, the Bangsamoro issue will be addressed and the Mindanao conflict will be resolved,” he added.

It was not clear how the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a separate agreement with the government in 1996, would react to the preliminary peace deal.

In the deal, MILF fighters will give up their weapons as soon as a final deal is reached. The agreement follows marathon negotiations between the government and the MILF in Malaysia, which is brokering the talks.

The agreement is set for signing on Oct. 16 in Manila, officials said. It spells out the general principles on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of the Muslim region. If all goes well, a final peace deal could be reached by 2016, when Aquino’s six-year term ends, according to officials.

“This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said. “This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity,” he said. He cautioned, however, that “the work does not end here” since “there are still details both sides must thresh out.”

The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of negotiations with the 11,000-strong MILF on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead and held back development in Mindanao. Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

“The parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable,” said the 13-page agreement, seen by AP. It calls for the creation of a new Muslim autonomous region called the “Bangsamoro” to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was created in 1989 and which Aquino characterized yesterday as a “failed experiment.”

“This agreement creates a new political entity and it deserves a name that symbolizes and honors the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao and celebrates the history and character of that part of our nation. That name will be Bangsamoro,” Aquino said. “It brings all former secessionist groups into the fold; no longer does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aspire for a separate state.”

The accord calls for the establishment of a 15-member “Transition Commission” that would thresh out the details of the preliminary agreement and draft a law creating the new Muslim autonomous region in about two years. ARMM covers Basilan (except Isabela), Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

The rebels would undertake a “graduated program” to decommission their armed guerrilla units “so that they are put beyond use,” the agreement said, without specifying a timetable.

“This framework agreement is about rising above our prejudices. It is about casting aside the distrust and myopia that has the plagued efforts of the past,” Aquino said in his television announcement, surrounded by his Cabinet officials and at least two political allies – senators Franklin Drilon and Teofisto Guingona III. Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras and Education Secretary Armin Luistro were not present when Aquino made the announcement.

Transparent

Officials said the preliminary accord would be posted on the government’s website for public scrutiny and signed in Manila in the presence of Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.

“In the next few days, the basic principles and outline of the agreement will be published in various periodicals; the Official Gazette of our government will post the agreement in full,” he disclosed, calling on everyone to join the “public discourse.”

“Everything will be disclosed; we have no desire to keep secrets. To the best of our ability, we have examined these agreements; we believe we have reached balance and common ground,” Aquino added.

“As a result, we have rectified the errors of the past, and installed mechanisms to make sure they do not recur,” he stressed.

“It’s been a long journey and this is an important milestone in our search for lasting peace,” presidential peace talks adviser Teresita Deles said. The draft agreement, she said, “shows a very clear map toward the end point of a political settlement.”

The new Muslim region will be built upon an existing autonomous territory under ARMM, among the country’s poorest and most violent, which includes more than four million people living in five provinces, two cities, 113 towns and 2,470 villages.

The new autonomous region, under the deal, will comprise six municipalities in Lanao del Norte, six municipalities in North Cotabato, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan, Deles said. She said the southern part of Palawan is not included in the new political entity. She declined to elaborate, saying it’s chief peace negotiator Marvic Leonen who could give further details.

The Muslim area will gain more political and economic powers, including imposition of taxes to cut central government subsidies, a bigger share in revenues from natural resources and a more active role in internal security.

The deal comes as the Philippines defies its reputation as an economic laggard with strong growth and a resurgence in investor interest.

The Moro rebels had earlier dropped a demand for a separate Muslim state and renounced terrorism.

Their negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, earlier said his group would not lay down weapons until a final peace accord is concluded. He added that insurgents could form a political party and run in democratic elections to get a chance at leading the autonomous region for which they have been fighting.

Opportunities

After four decades of conflict and nearly 15 years of violence-interrupted talks, the MILF leaders are ageing and, analysts say, eager to see some fruit from the years of peace negotiations.

The leadership may also be motivated by the prospect of royalties from huge untapped deposits of oil, gas and mineral resources in rebel areas, part of an estimated total of $312 billion in mineral wealth in Mindanao. France’s Total has partnered with Malaysia’s Mitra Energy Ltd. to explore oil and gas fields in the Sulu Sea off Mindanao.

Despite the new accord, Leonen called for “guarded optimism” during last week’s negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, saying both sides still face the enormous task of threshing out details. And the challenges are many.

In 2008, the planned signing of a similar preliminary pact – the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOAAD) – was scuttled when opponents went to the Supreme Court, which declared the agreement unconstitutional. Fighting erupted when three rebel commanders attacked Christian communities, and an ensuing military offensive killed more than 100 people and displaced about 750,000 villagers before a ceasefire ended the violence.

One of the hard-line rebel commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off from the MILF last year and formed a new group called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, which was demanding a separate Islamic state. Kato’s forces launched attacks on several army camps and outposts in August, prompting another army offensive that killed more than 50 fighters of the 200-strong rebel faction.

Jaafar said there is no point comparing the new framework agreement with the botched MOAAD. The aborted deal would have included large areas of Palawan and Christian-dominated areas in North Cotabato and Zamboanga City.

“What is important is we now have a solution to our problem. The point of comparison is not important. What is important is this has been accepted by a majority of the Bangsamoros,” Jaafar said.

“Now, there is a solution already to the Bangsamoro issue but let’s hope, that finally, a final agreement will be signed,” he said.

The MILF itself broke away in the 1980s from the MNLF, which signed a 1996 autonomy deal with the government. That peace accord did not lead to the group’s disarmament and many of the rebels have simply laid low in Mindanao, still demanding that the government fulfill its commitments, including jobs, security and economic development.

Some former guerrillas also formed a small but brutal al-Qaeda-linked group called the Abu Sayyaf, which became notorious for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings until US-backed military offensives routed many of its militants. They are mostly based in Sulu and Basilan, where about 400 gunmen remain. AP, Alexis Romero, Delon Porcalla (The Philippine Star)

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