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Aquino hails gov’t-MILF peace deal

Bangsamoro to replace ARMM setup

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PEACE PROGRESS President Aquino and his adviser on the peace process, Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, exchange pleasantries following an official announcement that the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have agreed on a road map aimed at ending decadeslong separatist insurgency in Mindanao. EDWIN BACASMAS

President Benigno Aquino on Sunday said the government had reached a preliminary peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a major breakthrough toward ending a decadeslong insurgency in the country’s impoverished south.

Speaking in a nationally televised announcement attended by his entire Cabinet, Mr. Aquino described the deal as a “framework agreement”—a road map for establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by minority Muslims in Catholic-majority Mindanao.

“This framework agreement paves the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao,”

Mr. Aquino said.

“It brings all secessionist groups into the fold. No longer does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aspire for a separate state,” the President said. “This means that hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity for other citizens,” he said.

The agreement clears the way for the establishment of a new autonomous political entity to be called Bangsamoro, which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The establishment of Bangsamoro will follow the constitutional and legal processes to “ensure that the Philippines remains one nation and one people, with all of our diverse cultures and narratives seeking the common goal,” Mr. Aquino said.

Explaining the context of the negotiations between the government and the MILF for the creation of Bangsamoro, Mr. Aquino said: “The ARMM is a failed experiment. Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system, and those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun. We cannot change this without structural reform.”

Mr. Aquino went on: “And now we have forged an agreement that seeks to correct these problems. It defines our parameters and our objectives, while upholding the integrity and sovereignty of our nation.”

Signing in Manila

The agreement came at the conclusion on Saturday of the latest round of negotiations between the government and the MILF peace panels in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which brokered the talks.

The breakthrough came after 13 exploratory meetings in 21 months under the Aquino administration. It was the 32nd round since the talks opened in Kuala Lumpur in 2003.

The two panels will sign the agreement in Malacañang on Oct. 15 in the presence of the President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, according to Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles.

The lead negotiators, Marvic Leonen for the government and Mohagher Iqbal for the MILF, will sign the agreement.

Deles said the text of the agreement would be published in newspapers and posted on the Official Gazette (http://www.gov.ph) and the website of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Bangsamoro will encompass a territory much smaller than the one proposed through the Moro homeland agreement that the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 2008.

According to Deles, Bangsamoro will cover the five provinces in the ARMM, plus six municipalities in Lanao del Norte; several villages in six municipalities in North Cotabato, Cotabato City, and Isabela City in Basilan.

Bangsamoro will be the fifth attempt at autonomy as a strategy for dealing with the aspirations of the Moros to handle their own affairs. But this is the third time that an autonomous region has been agreed upon through negotiations.

The two other accords were the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The ARMM and the two regional autonomous governments created during the Marcos era were unilateral initiatives of the government.

The agreement will serve as the basis for a law that Congress will enact after consultations with residents of Mindanao.

Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said the approval of the Bangsamoro law would be through plebiscite.

“This will not be an imposition by the national government on the people of Mindanao,” Roxas said. “In other words, a plebiscite will still be held.”

MILF happy

The MILF hailed the breakthrough as the “beginning of peace.”

“We are happy and we thank the President for this,” Agence France-Presse quoted MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar as saying from his base in Mindanao.

While Mr. 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.

Both Mr. Aquino and Jaafar pointed to major obstacles that still needed to be overcome before a final peace agreement could be achieved.

Major issues

The agreement spells out the general principles on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of the proposed Bangsamoro.

Mr. Aquino sought to assure the nation that the national government would continue to exercise “exclusive powers of defense and security, foreign policy, monetary policy and coinage, citizenship and naturalization” over the new autonomous region.

But the “Filipinos of Bangsamoro” would get an equitable share of taxes, revenues and the fruits of national patrimony, Mr. Aquino said.

“They will enjoy equal protection of laws and access to impartial justice,” the President said.

 

Acknowledgments

Mr. Aquino thanked MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim and the MILF Central Committee for “the trust extended” to the government, the members of the MILF negotiating panel led by Iqbal, and the government of Malaysia, “who stood as facilitators as we realized our aspirations for peace.”

The President thanked in particular Prime Minister Razak whose commitment, he said, “remained firm despite considerable political and personal risk.”

Mr. Aquino also acknowledged the efforts of the international community in advancing the peace process.

He cautioned, however, that “the work does not end here.”

“There are still details both sides must thresh out,” he said.

The preliminary agreement marks the most significant progress in 15 years of negotiations with the 12,000-strong MILF on ending an uprising that has left more than 150,000 people dead and held back development in the south.

 

Transition

Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

The accord calls for the establishment of a 15-member “Transition Commission” that will thresh out the details of the preliminary agreement and draft a law creating Bangsamoro in about two years.

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

“It’s been a long journey and this is an important milestone in our search for lasting peace,” Deles said.

The draft agreement, she said, “shows a very clear map toward the end point of a political settlement.”

Bangsamoro will be built upon an existing autonomous territory, among the country’s poorest and most violent, which includes more than 4 million people living in five provinces, two cities, 113 towns and 2,470 villages.

Final accord

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

MILF chief negotiator Iqbal said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press that 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.

Despite the new accord, chief government negotiator 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.

Challenges

And the challenges are many.

In 2008, the planned signing of a preliminary pact for a Moro homeland 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 hardline rebel commanders, Ameril Umra Kato, broke off from the MILF last year and formed a new group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), opposed to the talks.

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.

MNLF

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 the south, 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 Philippine military offensives routed many of the bandits.

They are mostly based in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan, where about 400 bandits remain. With reports from Ryan D. Rosauro, Inquirer Mindanao; AP and AFP


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