Philippines to sign peace plan with rebels

2012-10-15 09:00
A Filipino Muslim woman flashes the peace sign behind a barb wired fence as they gather in support of a preliminary peace agreement between the government and the nation's largest Muslim rebel group. (Aaron Favila, AP)

A Filipino Muslim woman flashes the peace sign behind a barb wired fence as they gather in support of a preliminary peace agreement between the government and the nation's largest Muslim rebel group. (Aaron Favila, AP)

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Manila - The biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines is set to sign a landmark peace plan with the government on Monday aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency in which 150 000 people have died.

President Benigno Aquino is due to host Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim at the presidential palace to oversee the signing of the accord, which outlines steps towards a final resolution to the conflict by 2016.

The United Nations, the United States and other countries have welcomed the roadmap, achieved after 15 years of on-again, off-again negotiations between the MILF and various Philippine administrations, as a rare chance for peace.

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 there.

However the MILF's leadership, as well as independent observers and foreign governments, have warned the path towards peace remains littered with obstacles, and that Monday's signing does not guarantee an end to the conflict.

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

Poverty


Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for full independence or autonomy since the 1970s in Mindanao, which they consider their ancestral homeland from before Spanish Christians colonised the country in the 1500s.

The estimated four to nine million Muslims are now a minority in Mindanao after years of Catholic immigration, but they remain a majority in some areas. Muslims would be a majority in the planned new autonomous region.

The conflict has left huge areas of Mindanao, a resource rich and fertile farming region covering the southern third of the Philippines, in deep poverty.

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

Most of the 150 000 people estimated to have died in the conflict were in the 1970s, when an all-out war raged.

A ceasefire between the MILF and the government in place since 2003 has largely kept the peace, but outbreaks of deadly violence have occurred over the past decade.

'Failed experiment'

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 but Aquino described it last week as a "failed experiment" because of massive corruption and worsening poverty there.

The planned new autonomous region would replace the old one.

Some of the MNLF's leaders have voiced anger at seeing their powerbase 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 will have to approve the laws of the new autonomous region.

2016 deadline

However Aquino, who is one of the most popular presidents in the country's history, has invested a lot of personal political capital in pushing for an end to the conflict.

Experts have said that, unlike the unpopular Arroyo, Aquino may be able to convince the country's Catholic majority to support autonomy for Muslims.

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

The formal peace talks have been held in Malaysia, and last week's announcement by Aquino that the "framework agreement" had been achieved came after months of intense negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

Read more on:    benigno aquino  |  philippines
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