With President Benigno Aquino pushing the Philippine Congress today to pass a bill that would establish an autonomous Muslim region in the country, the Southeast Asian nation could be closer to taking the next step in shutting down a rebellion that has left more than 120,000 people dead.
President Aquino called on lawmakers to quickly push the bill through to create the autonomous region, which would be called the Bangsamoro area, and would encompass the island of Mindanao. This development comes on the heels of successful negotiations that took place in March, and after over 40 years of conflict between Muslim rebels in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
"We ask Congress ... to pass this bill in the soonest possible time," Aquino said on Wednesday.
During the March talks, the Filipino government and the main rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), signed a deal to put down their weapons and break up — if they were given economic and societal powers over Bangsamoro. These talks led to the jointly drafted bill that will give the rebels control over governmental responsibilities, including taxes and license fees.
The government would initiate a transition period in which the leaders of the rebel groups would take charge of the autonomous region before elections set for May 2016, according to Reuters. At this point, MILF would participate in the electoral process as a political party.
"If we are able to legislate this, we can give our Moro brothers enough time to prepare, thus enabling them to nurture the seeds of meaningful governance which were planted for the Bangsamoro," Aquino explained.
Michael Kugelman, the senior program associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center, told VICE News there is reason to be optimistic about this plan for the autonomous state.
"I think this is one of the rare occasions where you have strong political will, support for the rebels, and considerable public support," he said, adding that MILF could "be a very responsible player as a civic entity."
According to Kugelman, one of the notable aspects of the bill is that the autonomous leadership in Bangsamoro would implement Islamic Law, but it would only be applicable to Muslims, and Christians would be exempt.
While Aquino carries weight in congressional actions, the bill will still need to pass through the country's Senate and House of Representatives. Hurdles have already arisen, according to the New York Times, with some lawmakers saying they would like to see changes made to the bill — specifically, that the region would get to hold onto more of its local taxes than other districts. If these changes are pushed through and are not to MILF's liking, the guerrilla group could pull out of the deal altogether.
The chief negotiator on the bill, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, said the reason Bangsamoro was receiving a better deal for keeping taxes was because it "has been left behind in terms of economic development." Mindanao is the Philippines second largest island, but there has been little economic progress there in comparison to the rest of the country, an issue often blamed on the region's ongoing violence.
MILF, the largest rebel group and key cornerstone to the peace agreements, was established in the 1970s. Negotiations have been ongoing between the guerilla group and the government since the late 1990s. While the recent move towards peace — which first took hold in October 2012 — appears promising, some of the more violent rebel groups are noticeably missing from the discussion.
Specifically, the al Qaeda-connected militant group Abu Sayyaf is not involved in autonomous state or peace negotiations. Abu Sayyaf is a designated terrorist organization according to the US State Department.
"Not only are they not apart of the deal, but they wouldn't want to be a part of the deal," Kugelman said, explaining the group is similar to al Qaeda and other groups, in that they do not have any interest in negotiating with and accommodating the government.
According to Kugelman, Abu Sayyaf has a reputation for brutality, but it does not have nearly the number of fighters that MILF has, meaning they were not as crucial of a player in the peace talks. If Abu Sayyaf, or other groups, do decide to go against MILF, this could have serious implications, especially for the desired economic boom the government is hoping for in the region.
"If these groups resist what the MILF has done, it could cause destabilization, and there's nothing worse for investment than destabilization," he said.
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