President Benigno S. Aquino III on Wednesday submitted a draft law to the Philippine Congress that would create a self-governed, predominantly Muslim autonomous region in the country’s south
By FLOYD WHALEY SEPT. 10, 2014
MANILA — President Benigno S. Aquino III on Wednesday submitted a draft law to the Philippine Congress that would create a self-governed, predominantly Muslim autonomous region in the country’s south, a major step in peace talks meant to end more than four decades of fighting with Muslim rebels.
“This law is for the children who wish to run across school grounds instead of running for their lives,” Mujiv S. Hataman, a politician in the southern Philippines, said in a statement on Wednesday. “This law is for families who want to put life into the earth through crops and produce, no longer to dig graves for their fathers and sons who have fallen in war. This law is what will help them realize their wishes and dreams.”
The long-running conflict between the government and Muslim fighters in the south has killed thousands of people and displaced more than three million. It has also left Mindanao, the largest island in the southern Philippines, mired in poverty and lawlessness despite being rich in resources that include natural gas, gold and other valuable minerals.
The draft law that Mr. Aquino submitted to the Philippine Congress on Wednesday stems from an October 2012 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest of the Muslim rebel groups. It would group Muslim-dominated southern areas into what would be called the Bangsamoro region, based on the traditional name of Filipino Muslims.
To emphasize the importance of the law to his administration, Mr. Aquino personally presented the draft measure to leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives at a ceremony on Wednesday morning.
The Bangsamoro region would have local self-government, including locally recruited law enforcement officials — a critical demand by the rebels, given the allegations of human rights abuses in the region by the Philippine police and military, many of whom are Christians from the north. About four million people would live in the Bangsamoro region. Of the Philippines’ population of 107 million, about 5 percent are Muslim, most of them living in the south; about 80 percent are Roman Catholic.
The region would also retain most of the tax revenue generated from its natural resources. The central government would retain control over currency, foreign policy issues and national defense.
The Philippines in recent years has experienced surging economic growth, and an expanding middle class is enjoying prosperity not seen since the 1950s. But this phenomenon has largely bypassed the southern Philippines, with persistent violence keeping out foreign investors and the jobs they create.
The peace agreement and the formation of the new autonomous region still face significant challenges. The government and rebels underwent difficult, monthslong negotiations to draft the measure that will underpin the new arrangement. It now depends on passage in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Mr. Aquino has significant influence in both houses. He has shown that he can get contentious legislation through Congress, notably the passage of a reproductive-health bill that was ardently opposed by the Roman Catholic Church. But some Philippine legislators have called for changes in the new draft, and rebel leaders have said that they could reject the final measure if the main provisions benefiting the rebels are watered down.
“What is not clear is how any changes made by Congress will be handled by the two sides,” said Steven Rood, the country representative of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines. “The draft, as certified by the president, represents a mutually acceptable law. There will have to be constant and detailed communication about the acceptability, or lack of acceptability, of proposed congressional changes.”
The issues raised by legislators were taken into consideration during the negotiations and the drafting of the measure, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the chairwoman of the government’s negotiating team, said in an interview. Some lawmakers have noted that the new region would keep a much larger portion of local taxes than their own districts do, and have said that those funds might be better used for the national benefit rather than going into local coffers.
“The reason for a better wealth-sharing arrangement in the Bangsamoro has to do with the fact that this place has been left behind in terms of economic development,” Ms. Coronel-Ferrer said. “It is part of the correction, a kind of reparation.”
Opponents of the agreement have said that it infringes on Philippine sovereignty, essentially creating a separate Muslim state in the south. A number of organizations have said they will contest the law’s constitutionality in the Supreme Court, and the rebels have said they will reject the measure if the court strikes down the main provisions dealing with autonomy or revenue-sharing.
The most violent groups in the southern Philippines — including the Abu Sayyaf, which has carried out high-profile kidnappings, beheadings and bombings for more than a decade — are not party to the agreement. The Abu Sayyaf was blamed by the military in July for killing 23 people on the southern Philippine island of Sulu, including more than a dozen women and children.
A version of this article appears in print on September 11, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Philippine Bill Would Give Muslims Autonomy.