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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Uncertainty surrounds push for peace with militants in Philippines

MANILA: The fate of the long-awaited Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is facing an uncertain future.

In the Philippines, the BBL is the cornerstone of a peace pact between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Muslim-dominated Mindanao.

The historic peace deal was signed in March 2014 after 17 years of negotiations, and was expected to end decades of secessionist war that had cost the nation more than 120,000 lives.

The peace deal asked MILF fighters to lay down their arms and serve as politicians, leading Mindanao's new independent region for Muslims, the Bangsamoro. The area was to have its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes.

However, the process was derailed in January 2015 when a botched operation to capture Malaysian extremist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, killed 44 Special Action Force Commandos.

"The incident of Mamasapano that entered into the middle of the process of identifying the political formula undermined the trust of one of the groups. In the public opinion, it has done a lot of damage," said Father Calvo, Chair of Peace Advocates of Zamboanga.

Some groups have also positioned themselves against the BBL, particularly those in western Mindanao which comprises the Christian-dominated city of Zamboanga and the island provinces of Sulu and Basilan - the stronghold of extremist rebel groups the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - and indigenous groups such as the Tausug and Badjao.

"I was in Jolo after the siege and I asked informally. The general sentiment is that, they’re opposed to the BBL. It’s a MILF agenda and the Tausug would not allow the MILF to govern," said Professor Hezekiah A Concepcion, Head of School of Arts and Sciences at Anteneo de Zamboanga University.

However, it is not the final curtain for the peace deal, given that the next elected government of the Philippines is legally bound to honour the commitments of the 2014 agreement.

Still, it will be the prerogative of the next president to honour the original terms or start the process again from scratch, a move that could take years to complete.

Those on the negotiation panel are worried that failure to pass the BBL might lead to further polarising of the already fragmented groups.

Disillusioned with the lack of progress, the MILF has already fractured - one splinter group is the MNLF. In retaliation to its exclusion in the peace processes, the group laid siege to the port city of Zamboanga in 2013, sparking a three-week-long battle that left at least 244 people dead and 116,000 civilians displaced.

"We are also concerned about the impact and that the MNLF might take into their own hands. If they are not happy, we might end up again being an area where they might stage an unexpected attack," said Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco.

In the meantime, years of negotiations now hang in the balance, as the country waits to see how the next administration chooses to proceed with the peace process.

- CNA/pp

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