After four years of talks and one deadly setback, the Philippines is finalizing a law that would offer some autonomy to a flagship Muslim separatist group on the historically troubled southern island of Mindanao.
Both houses of the Philippine legislature have passed initial versions of the law, and President Rodrigo Duterte is to sign a final draft July 23 just before a state-of-the-nation speech, according to domestic media reports. The law would give at least one major rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) autonomy over land use in a segment of Mindanao, the country’s southernmost major island.
However, lawmakers may remove some of the clauses that the front wants, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila. The group might protest the law if too many items are taken out but ultimately they will go along with it, he said.
“The MILF might not get what they want,” Casiple said, using the rebel group’s acronym. “But at the least it would end the MILF rebellion if you’re talking about the leadership itself.”
Four years of effort
Muslim rebel negotiators, the government and lawmakers have haggled over the law since the rebel front and the state reached a peace deal in 2014 requiring the Moro front to lay down arms.
Today’s legislation called the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or BBL, would create an autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. That region would in turn replace an existing 12,536-square-kilometer tract carved out for Muslim groups in Mindanao and come with more rights for its inhabitants.
The law should inspire the Moro front to shun any further violence, said Enrico Cau, Ph.D. student in international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“None of them are looking for war,” Cau said. “President Duterte will say he doesn’t want to go to war with his own kin, and MILF seems very reasonable. Basically, they have no reason, no rational reason, not to want peace in the region.”
Muslims have lived in the 21 million population Mindanao’s west and outlying islands for more than 500 years. Many live in poverty and resent the country’s Christian majority control of resources. About 121,000 people have died in related conflicts since the 1960s.
The Philippine Congress was set to pass a law in 2015 but stopped after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ambushed troops near its holdings in Mindanao and killed 44 commandos. Duterte, himself from Mindanao and in office since 2016, has pushed for negotiations and told Congress this year to make it an urgent priority.
Moro group peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal has urged passage of a law that reflects the peace deal.
“The only BBL acceptable to us is a BBL compliant to the peace agreement,” Iqbal said in a video statement posted on the group’s official Facebook site. “The MILF position is, let the BBL pass Congress and the Senate now.”
Negotiations are expected to continue until the final signing, Casiple said. The Moro front and the government would haggle over rights to the autonomous region’s exact boundaries and rights to any oil and gas discoveries. The proposal calls for equal sharing of coal, natural gas and petroleum.
Congress has also lowered from 6 to 5 percent the Bangsamoro region’s proposed annual share of national internal revenue, allotting it $1.1 billion, Philippine media reports say.
Duterte has said the region would not be allowed to keep a separate military.
Another sticking point: whether autonomy sharing covers a separate rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front. The group has expressed reservations about the process, and one of its factions plotted a deadly attack in Mindanao in 2013.
The Moro National Liberation Front wants the law to allow job placement, scholarships and permission for its founder, Nur Misuari, to join talks with the government, a group representative said for this report.
“To soften my pragmatic attitude against BBL, I only want a scholarship abroad on skill courses such as beer making, Mandarin language, alternative clean energy, and whatever that could help me learn new skills to go back to peaceful mainstream livelihood,” the representative said.
Analysts expect the law to omit smaller, more violent Mindanao-based Muslim groups such as the Abu Sayyaf known for kidnapping foreigners, and the Maute Group that battled troops for five months in 2017.
Those left out might rebel, scholars have said in the past. Separatist groups in Mindanao have shown a pattern of reappearing under new names or locations to stage attacks.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front as the law’s chief Muslim beneficiary needs a plan for how to handle other groups in surrounding Mindanao, Cau said.