MANILA: A landmark law was ratified on Friday (Jan 25), paving the way for the creation of an autonomous entity in Muslim-majority areas in the southern Philippines.
This came after a referendum earlier this week. Voters in two Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao decisively said “yes” to a law to create a self-governing area called Bangsamoro.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law or BOL was the result of a peace deal signed between the government and the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
After 17 years of negotiations, the agreement raises hopes of ending four decades of fighting between government troops and the MILF.
The Bangsamoros – Muslim natives from the country’s south – said they were subject to marginalisation, land-grabbing and even massacres that sparked their rebellion half a century ago.
The MILF has pushed for autonomy and, in exchange, committed to gradually disband its armed wing.
“We wanted the law ratified because we want peace. We don’t know what could happen next if it wasn’t ratified,” MILF fighter Monib Sinebangan, 69, told Channel NewsAsia.
Feeling powerless as a Muslim minority, Sinebangan started fighting for a Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines at the age of 22.
He joined the MILF during its inception in the 1980s, while the rebel group’s predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front, negotiated peace with the government.
Sinebangan said the new law offers hope for generations of Muslim natives to have more opportunities for a better life.
“The peace agreement is a political agreement, but a very important complementary track is that the political agreement delivers what are called peace dividends which are really socio-economic benefits on the ground,” explained former presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles.
“People on the ground will feel that the peace process, the peace agreement changed my life, contributed to a better life for me. Not just that I am not fearful of the security threats but that my needs – in terms of health in terms of food, in terms of housing, in terms of my children being able to go to school – that those are in place,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
The old autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao, which the new Bangsamoro entity will replace, houses some of the country’s poorest provinces.
Deles believes improving people’s quality of lives is also a disincentive for those in the margins to join radical groups.
“In terms of the peace process, success breeds success,” she added.
“If they see former combatants, if they see the battalions of the MILF being transformed and getting benefits, socio-economic benefits for themselves, for their families, their children, then that is something that is going to attract people who are maybe joining other lawless armed groups because they see no other options for them.”
Another voting day has been set for Feb 6 for other areas seeking to be included in the new autonomous region.
LAYING DOWN ARMS
The ratification of the law will lead to the gradual laying down of arms of about 30,000 MILF fighters, in exchange for a socio-economic package that can enable them to shift to civilian life.
The first phase of the process will involve the MILF’s submission of an inventory of combatants, weapons, and camps. The fighters would then be assessed in terms of what their needs and skills are.
In the second phase, an initial 30 per cent of the fighters will lay down their arms. Pardons and amnesties will also be granted.
The decommissioning will not only cover the MILF. Other private armed groups can also be subject to firearms control and management.
The third phase will involve the laying down of arms of 65 per cent of the rebels – that’s another 35 per cent on top of the initial 30 per cent.
The fourth and final phase is when all MILF rebels are supposed to have laid down their weapons. This will lead to the signing of an exit agreement to conclude the peace process.
The weapons that will be turned over by the former rebels will not be destroyed, according to MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. They will be deposited in an agreed place and will have to be “rendered beyond use”.
“It will be handled by a joint security of the MILF and government,” he said.
Livelihood options will have to be provided to the former rebels.
In addition, President Rodrigo Duterte will have to appoint members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. The body will administer the new entity’s transition to its maiden elections in 2022, when an 80-member parliament and a chief minister would be chosen.