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Muslim rebels ink Philippine pact as step to peace

By Jim Gomez

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 6:35 p.m. MDT

Filipino Muslims flash the peace sign as they join a rally in support of the signing of a preliminary peace pact between the government and the nation's largest Muslim rebel group during a rally outside the gates of the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. Muslim rebels and the Philippine government overcame decades of bitter hostilities and took their first tentative step toward ending one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies with the ceremonial signing of a preliminary peace pact Monday that both sides said presented both a hope and a challenge.

Aaron Favila, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MANILA, Philippines — Muslim rebels and the Philippine government overcame decades of bitter hostility and took their first tentative step toward ending one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies with the signing of a preliminary peace pact that provides both hope and challenges.

The framework agreement creates a roadmap for a final peace settlement. It grants minority Muslims in the southern Philippines broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and crippled development.

It was signed Monday in Manila's Malacanang presidential palace by government negotiator Marvic Leonen and his counterpart from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Mohagher Iqbal. Also witnessing the historic moment were President Benigno Aquino III, rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim — who set foot in the palace for the first time — and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose country helped broker the deal.

About 200 guerrillas and followers, all in dark business suits, joined the crowd of diplomats, officials, and police and army generals in a chandelier-lit hall to witness the signing. In their southern Philippine strongholds, thousands of guerrillas waved flags and gathered to celebrate.

"The framework agreement before us will bring to an end the violence which claimed so many lives, and cut short so many futures," Najib said. He said the deal would protect the rights of minority Muslims while preserving the Philippines' territorial integrity.

"After four decades, peace is within reach," he said, adding that he hopes large numbers of Filipinos displaced by decades of strife, including many who fled to Malaysia, will be able to return to normal life.

But he cautioned that the agreement "does not solve all the problems, rather it sets the parameters in which peace can be found."

The 13-page document outlines general agreements on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory granted for a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The large number of army troops will gradually be replaced by a regional police, which could enlist qualified guerrillas, officials and the rebels said.

It calls for the establishment of a 15-member Transition Commission to draft a law creating the new Muslim-administered region. The 11,000-strong rebel army will be deactivated gradually "beyond use," the agreement says, without specifying a timetable.

The United States, which has deployed hundreds of counterterrorism troops in the southern Philippines since 2002, welcomed the signing, saying it "marks another step toward ending insurrection and restoring good governance."

"The United States will continue to work with the international community, regional stakeholders and the people of the Philippines to promote transparency, governance, economic growth and development to achieve a better future," said a White House statement.

Aquino also said much work remains to be done and "the devil is in the details," but that his government is committed to the country's south. Negotiations on a final peace pact will start next month in Malaysia and the two sides aim to finish drafting it this year, government negotiator Marvic Leonen said.

Murad said the agreement following "almost 16 years of hard negotiations interspersed with armed confrontations" is "a landmark document that restores to our people their Bangsamoro identity and their homeland, their right to govern themselves and the power to forge their destiny and future with their very hands."

Sonny Davao, deputy chief of the rebel army, said guerrilla commanders were ready to shift from armed struggle to helping build a new Muslim-administered region.

"We have to transform ourselves because we have responsibilities and obligations to our people and to Islam," said Davao, who shed his camouflage uniform for a dark coat and tie for the signing ceremony.

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