Philippines annex "Bangsamoro State" for Muslim self-rule in SOUTHERN PART MINDANAO signed for 2016

The Manila government has signed a deal with a MILF Muslim separatist group on the decommissioning of rebel weapons, paving the way for the creation of a new self-governing region for the country's Muslim minority in Mindanao by 2016.

The agreement – with the country's biggest Muslim rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – is the final piece of a deal initially agreed in October 2012 that many people hope will end more than four decades of violence in the southern Philippines that has left more than 100,000 people dead and retarded economic growth. Other aspects of the deal, on wealth, revenue and power sharing, have already been completed.

A peace agreement signed with another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in 1996 is largely considered a failure. Fighting worsened after it came into effect and the autonomous regional government created in its wake proved ineffectual.

"The agreement represents the culmination of decades of excruciating diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the conflict in Mindanao," said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University. "This provides an unprecedented opportunity to end one of the world's longest-running intrastate conflicts."

The groups left out of the agreement are the most violent in the southern Philippines, including the Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which has carried out kidnappings, bombings and beheadings for more than a decade and says it wants to set up a strict Islamic state.

The peace deal is expected to be signed within the next several weeks, but analysts consider that just a formality. They say the true test of the pact will be in its implementation; a peace deal with another militant group in 1996 failed in part because of widespread corruption in the area it was supposed to control.

The negotiations were brokered by Malaysia, where the deal was reached, and countries including the United States and those in the European Union are expected to help in the implementation, providing aid and advice on good governance. Those countries want to sap the strength of Islamic insurgencies in the region.

On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered congratulations for "concluding negotiations toward an historic, comprehensive peace agreement. This agreement offers the promise of peace, security, and economic prosperity now and for future generations in Mindanao."

The conflict between Muslim insurgent groups on Mindanao and the Christian-dominated government in the north of the country has simmered since the late 1800s. Every government since Philippine independence in 1946 has struggled to resolve the violence, through peace talks and sometimes military action.

In recent decades, the conflict has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives and displaced more than two million people. It has also kept the southern Philippines mired in poverty even as the country has undergone an economic renaissance of sorts, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia, with a growth rate that surpassed China's in some quarters last year.

"In a world looking for peaceful solutions to all troubles, we are grateful that we have found ours," Teresita Quintos Deles, a presidential adviser on the peace talks, said Saturday.

The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been working on the details of the peace deal since October 2012, when they reached a framework agreement for ending the conflict.

Earlier interim agreements dealt with sharing power and resources. Under those deals, the national government will retain authority over national defense, foreign policy and monetary issues, while the newly formed autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro, is expected to have broad local powers.

The two parties also agreed that 75 percent of the tax revenue from metallic minerals mined in the region would stay in Mindanao. In addition, half of the taxes collected from fossil fuels developed in the region would remain with local authorities.

Saturday's agreement dealt with the delicate issue of disarmament. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to incorporate some of its 11,000 fighters into Philippine government forces and gradually disarm the others with the oversight of a third party yet to be named.

After the deal is formally signed, it must be passed by the Philippine congress and approved through plebiscite in the newly formed autonomous areas, but analysts consider passage extremely likely.

The success of the agreement may hinge in good part on the ability of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which will now be in charge of internal security in the autonomous area, to curb the violence of other militant groups. To do so, the peace deal envisions Muslim authorities working closely with Philippine security forces.

Another major group, the Moro National Liberation Front, signed the 1996 peace deal, but that agreement allowed the rebels to retain their arms and did little to end the violence. Those militants oppose the latest deal, which they say encroaches on the autonomy they were granted under their own pact. Factions of the group were involved in an incursion into the southern city of Zamboanga in September that left more than 200 people dead, most of them militants.

Government negotiators have said that bringing greater prosperity to Mindanao and empowering the largest peaceful Muslim groups in the area will help decrease violence and lawlessness. The United States has about 500 Special Forces troops based in Mindanao to help the Philippine military fight the most violent groups.

One analyst expressed skepticism about the chances for a lasting peace.

"The Aquino administration is in a hurry to finish this and claim credit for peace, but this isn't peace," said Bobit Avila, a columnist for The Philippine Star newspaper. "It will not bring peace unless all the armed groups in Mindanao will join in."

"I can visit Muslim countries around the world without fear, but I can't go to Mindanao or I will be kidnapped," Mr. Avila said. "I don't think this agreement will change that." - NY Times


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