Philippines, Muslim Rebels Near Final Pact Amid Power-Share Deal

The Philippines and Muslim rebels expect to sign a final accord next month, bringing President Benigno Aquino closer to his pledge of ending four decades of insurgency on resource-rich Mindanao island.

The central government will retain authority over monetary, defense, and foreign policies while the autonomous government will have “exclusive powers” over agriculture, trade, investments, labor and tourism, according to a copy of the power-sharing deal signed yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. Bangsamoro, as the autonomous entity will be known, will have a ministerial form of government composed of at least 50 popularly elected ministers, who will elect among themselves a chief minister.

The parties said they expect to complete next month the last of four annexes that will tackle the schedule of disarming the rebels, paving the way for the final pact. They also need to thrash out jurisdiction over the waters to be included under Bangsamoro.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled development of the southern island. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao and unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $312 billion.

The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed the agreement on the “delineation and sharing of power,” according to the joint statement.

Muslim Separatists

Three weeks of fighting in Zamboanga city between government forces and another Muslim separatist group in September killed at least 203 people and delayed peace talks. The peace panel had originally targeted signing a final accord in 2013.

“This reflects the seemingly inexorable momentum for peace-building, despite the Zamboanga crisis earlier this year,” said political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian in a telephone interview. “The true test will come once they proceed to the normalization annex, involving the disarmament of MILF fighters and judicial compensation for victims of the clashes over the years.”

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. It’s also home to many of the country’s Muslim population, which accounts for about 5 percent of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Muslim Mindanao

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or the ARMM continued to have the highest poverty incidence among families in the first half of 2012, with the ratio widening to 46.9 percent from 42 percent in 2009, according to a government report in April.

The government and Muslim rebels agreed on wealth and revenue sharing in July and earlier this year completed the annex on transitional arrangements.

“The signing of the annex on power sharing ensures the achievement of a genuine and viable autonomy for the Bangsamoro,” Aquino’s peace adviser Teresita Deles wrote in an e-mail. “It has been a very difficult round but we were able to overcome a lot of obstacles, showing the parties’ shared commitment to finish and deliver on our peoples’ desire for peace.”

On October 15, 2012, Aquino witnessed the signing of the initial agreement between the government and the MILF, preserving a cease-fire and providing a framework for Bangsamoro, a political entity to replace the ARMM, which the president had called a “failed experiment.”

Annual Address

Aquino asked lawmakers during his annual address to Congress in July to pass legislation in 2014 creating the Bangsamoro, setting the stage for a new autonomous Muslim region before his six-year term ends in 2016.

A final pact is needed before Congress can discuss the Bangsamoro law. As negotiations took place in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 6, members of the MILF seized the police chief in Marawi City and killed his brother-in-law, which violated the cease-fire, according to army spokesman Captain Jefferson Somera.

The last annex “would involve a lot of horse trading and confidence building,” said Heydarian, the political analyst.

“Aquino will need to expend significant political capital to undertake this before he enters his lame duck years in 2015,” he said. “But it seems his administration is committed to show something on this front, as it could be a legacy issue.”

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