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    Sep 11, 2014

    Philippine region closer to self-rule


    PHILIPPINE President Benigno Aquino yesterday sent to Parliament a proposed law to grant autonomy to minority Muslims, a crucial step in his attempt to end one of Asia's longest rebellions.

    The submission to Congress is seen as significant, as it means Mr Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have agreed, after months of tense talks, on the entire legal underpinning for Muslim self-governance in the southern region of Mindanao.

    "We have taken yet another step towards a more peaceful and more progressive Mindanao," he said, after turning over the Bill to congressional leaders.

    He called for the passage "in the soonest possible time" of the proposed law that would have MILF leaders governing a region comprising about 10 per cent of the Philippines' land area.

    Mr Aquino said this would improve the lives of millions of Philippine Muslims, who are among the poorest inhabitants of the largely Catholic nation of 100 million people.

    Under the timetable of a peace pact, the law is meant to be passed before the end of this year, giving him time to put in place a regional government before his six-year term ends in mid-2016.

    Rebel leaders are expected to govern the new autonomous area during the brief transition period, transforming the guerrilla group into a political party.

    Once the law is passed, its residents would have to endorse it in a plebiscite scheduled next year.

    The agreement calls separately on MILF to disarm under supervision by international monitors.

    Both Senate president Franklin Drilon and opposition Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr said the Bill has broad support, though they warned there may not be enough time for it to be passed this year.

    "This is an opportunity for us to find true and lasting peace. Nobody that I know of would want to squander this opportunity," said Mr Marcos.

    The rebellion began more than 40 years ago when his late father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, was president. It has claimed the lives of 120,000 people, displaced two million and stifled development in the resource-rich region.

    The 10,000-strong MILF is worried over delays in drafting the Bill, but trusts it will be passed within the agreed timetable, its chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, said.

    Analysts, however, have cautioned the government and the rebels on challenges ahead, including the possibility of opposition to it from vested political and business interests, and ethnic-based factions in the diverse region.

    "Both the government and rebels are overly confident about this law to resolve everything," Earl Parreno - an analyst with the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, an independent policy advocacy group - told Reuters.

    "There are so many landmines ahead," added Mr Parreno, who said the deal could even be challenged in the Supreme Court.

    The United Nations office in Manila said it stood ready to support the implementation of the law. "This is a critical milestone in the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and a crucial achievement in ensuring lasting peace and sustainable development in Mindanao and in the wider Philippines," it said.