Philippines, Rebels Break Deadlock on Bill to Sustain Peace Deal

The Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group averted a collapse in a peace deal after breaking an impasse on legislation to create a new autonomous region in the south and ensure the end of 40 years of bloodshed.

Negotiators finished discussions and agreed on a final draft bill that will be submitted for President Benigno Aquino’s approval, according to a joint statement released today. They didn’t provide details such as how issues including fiscal autonomy and the administration of justice will be addressed.

“The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has more to lose if nothing comes out of this peace agreement,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. “Its leaders will lose face and Muslims will gain nothing, while Aquino who’s on his way out can always make a spin by saying that he did his best.”

The end of the deadlock comes after meetings between peace negotiators that started on Aug. 1, and more than four months since the state signed a peace deal with the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic to end a four-decade insurgency in Mindanao that has killed as many as 200,000 people. The pact, which also seeks to unlock investment in the mineral-rich south, is considered by many as a key legacy of Aquino.

Negotiators on Aug. 10 said they had agreed on substantial portions of the draft bill, while citing “remaining challenges and unsettled issues.” The bill, once endorsed by the president, needs approval from both houses of Congress.

Road Map

“I will not let peace to be snatched from my people again,” Aquino said during the peace-pact signing in March. “Not now, when we have already undertaken the most significant and difficult steps to achieve it.”

The peace accord provides a road map to establish a new political entity called the Bangsamoro, whose structure will be defined by congress, that will replace the failed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao set up in 1989. Moro Islamic must abandon its pursuit of a separate state in return for more power, revenue and territory, according to the deal. A local referendum will determine which other provinces will join the expanded autonomous region.

The Moro Islamic chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal accused the government on Aug. 6 of watering down the draft Bangsamoro basic law, saying the revisions made by presidential lawyers were unacceptable. Some repetitive clauses were deleted to make the bill leaner, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government peace panel, said on Aug. 7, adding that Muslim rebels’ concerns would be accommodated within the constitution.

Political Will

“Aquino needs to show political will by urging Congress and the judiciary to support the peace deal,” Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, said by phone. “The three government branches must isolate the issues surrounding the proposed Bangsamoro basic law from the complexities of Philippine politics.”

The final peace agreement signed on March 27 followed a deal reached by negotiators in January on disarming the rebels and on their transition to civilian life. The government and Muslim rebels agreed on power-sharing in December, on wealth and revenue sharing in July and earlier in 2013, on transitional arrangements.

The Supreme Court in October 2008 voided a peace accord between MILF and the government of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, for violating the constitution. That year, fighting between troops and renegade rebels forced about 390,000 Mindanao residents from their homes and left 100 civilians dead.

Political Risk

Aquino’s waning popularity amid allegations of illegal stimulus spending and misuse by some lawmakers of public funds could make it difficult for him to rally congressional and judicial support, Wadi said. He has less than two years to finish this deal before his term ends in 2016, and “the basic law might become a victim of political trade-offs,” he said.

Mindanao accounted for 14.3 percent of Philippine output in 2013, while economic growth there slowed to 6.3 percent from 8.1 percent in 2012, according to government data. It’s home to much of the country’s Muslim population, about 5 percent of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The poverty rate across the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao -- a delineation created during a previous attempt at peace -- climbed to 48.7 percent in 2012 from 39.9 percent in 2009, according to a December report. The Philippine Statistics Authority defines poverty as living on less than $1.20 a day.

“The solution is for the Moro Islamic to accept the limitations of the comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro under the constitution,” said Casiple, the political analyst. “They’re not in a position to make demands because they never won the war in the first place, a conflict where thousands of soldiers and civilians died.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.