Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Wednesday asked Congress to swiftly enact a law creating a Muslim autonomous area in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state, a crucial step in ending nearly five decades of conflict.
The two sides signed a deal in March to end a rebellion that has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stifled development in the resource-rich region, but hopes for peace were thrown into doubt when the rebels accused the government of reneging on the pact.
Intense negotiations rescued the deal under which the main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has agreed to disband and surrender weapons in exchange for powers over the economy and society in the Bangsamoro area.
Aquino is keen to see the deal in place before his term ends in June 2016.
“We ask Congress… to pass this bill in the soonest possible time,” Aquino said at a ceremony. “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.”
Rebel leaders are expected to govern the new autonomous area during a brief transition period until elections in May 2016, in which the MILF will take part, transforming the guerrilla group into a political party.
The law creating an autonomous government to replace an existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao island, which the president described as a failed experiment, was a product of 17 years of negotiations and months of drafting.
Under the deal, the Bangsamoro government will have self-rule over an expanded area, including wider powers to impose taxes and fees on permits and licenses.
Analysts, however, have cautioned the government and the rebels on challenges ahead, including the possibility of opposition to it from vested political and business interests and ethnic-based factions in the diverse region.
“I think both the government and rebels are overly confident about this law to resolve everything,” Earl Parreno, an analyst with the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, an independent policy advocacy group, told Reuters.
“There are so many landmines ahead,” said Parreno, who said the deal could even be challenged in the Supreme Court.