By Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte promised Monday to ask Congress to convene a special session for passage of a long-delayed law that would correct what he called “historical injustice” and give Muslims full autonomy in the restive south.
Duterte made the remarks in a speech before a gathering of thousands of ex-rebels belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Maguindanao province, which had seen some of the worst fighting in a decades-long separatist rebellion until a peace deal was struck in 2014.
“If we do not solve this problem, the fundamental issue of historical injustice, this problem will persist,” Duterte said. “This violence will not really end.”
He pledged he would “work very hard” to get Congress to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which outlines the basic structure of a proposed autonomous state in Muslim-populated Mindanao, the third-largest island in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
Duterte’s statement came amid warnings from guerrilla leaders that failure to approve the BBL could ignite a rebellion bigger than the recent one in Marawi, a southern city that was ravaged when pro-Islamic State (IS) militants, backed by foreign fighters, engaged security forces in a five-month battle.
The Philippine government declared the Marawi fighting over in late October after fighter jets pounded the militants with daily bombing runs. The battle left 1,100 people dead, including 930 militants and 165 soldiers and policemen.
Bringing peace in the south was one of the toughest challenges of his young government, Duterte said. The Islamic rebellion was ignited, he said, because Muslims wanted to retake what they thought was their rightful land.
“I have been saying that if I have a choice, this should be solved during my time and we can work our way out of this quagmire. It cannot go on,” he said. “Your children cannot kill my children.”
Duterte said he considered it his sacred duty to solve the rebellion.
“Let us work out a way to give our brother Muslims the arrangement that is also acceptable to Manila,” Duterte said.
Keeping the guns silent
The BBL was a landmark document that was signed when the 12,000-strong MILF agreed to end its rebellion in 2014. It spells out the political process by which the MILF would transform into an entity that would govern an expanded autonomous region in the south.
But Congress held up passage of the BBL law after 44 police commandos were killed by MILF guerrillas in early 2015, when they entered a rebel-held zone in Maguindanao province during an operation to target Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan).
Passage of the BBL in Congress is the only solution to keep the guns silent in Mindanao, where the rebellion has left 120,000 dead since the 1970s, Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief negotiator, said Sunday.
He warned that radical groups could take advantage of the volatile situation and target younger Muslims for terrorist activities, similar to what happened in Marawi.
The BBL was touted as a centerpiece legislation of the administration of then President Benigno Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor.
It was envisioned to create a Muslim autonomous in Mindanao. However, several congressmen had expressed reluctance to pass the draft law and have crucial provisions deleted.
Duterte earlier warned that any delays in passing the law could spell trouble in the south, with many of the MILF’s younger fighters already drifting to a more radical form of Islam being espoused by IS.
In 2008, MILF rebels rampaged and killed at least 300 civilians in southern Lanao del Norte province, after talks collapsed when the Supreme Court outlawed a peace deal that would have given the guerrillas control over vast swathes of land.
They dropped their bid for full independence six years later, leading to a peace pact.
MILF guerrilla leader Wahid Tundok, who commands a large number of MILF fighters, had warned last Tuesday that the former separatists could launch a siege larger that of the Marawi attack if Congress failed to pass the autonomy law.
“We have a lot of forces all over Mindanao’s key cities and if something will happen it’s bigger than Marawi,” Tundok said. “We want the government to fast-track the passage of the law for us to have peace in the region.”