Philippine leader says Muslim peace deal can be saved

Philippine leader says Muslim peace deal can be saved

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Tuesday he could still secure a peace deal with Muslim rebels before standing down next year, after a botched anti-terror raid nearly derailed the process.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group, signed a peace pact last year aiming to end their four-decade separatist struggle that has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.

But efforts by the Aquino administration to pass a law authorising an autonomous region for the nation's Muslim minority - the key part of the pact - were delayed amid outrage over a police raid in January targeting alleged top terrorists.

Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir, one of the United States' most wanted men, was killed in the raid. But 44 police commandos also died in an ensuing day-long battle with MILF fighters and other rebels.

Asked in an exclusive interview with AFP on Tuesday if the peace accord could be implemented before he steps down in June next year, Aquino said: "Yes, I believe so." As outrage eased over the deaths - the single biggest battlefield toll among security forces in recent memory - the autonomy bill could be discussed "devoid of emotion", he said.

"Perhaps two, three weeks ago, a month ago they were saying it's dead in the water," Aquino said.

"They're back to discussing it. That's a very hopeful sign," Aquino said, referring to debates in parliament that resumed this week after a three-month suspension.

Aquino repeated warnings that failure to implement the treaty could radicalise the MILF's moderate base and cause further bloodshed in the southern Philippines.

"There is the very real danger that failing this, they (MILF leaders) will lose the support of their rank and file, who will now listen to the more radical voices within the organisation," he said.

Government peace negotiators hope parliament will pass the self-rule bill by mid-year.

Once it becomes law, a plebiscite will be held in areas to be included in the autonomous region that will be called Bangsamoro.

A transitional government will hold office until the first set of regional officials are elected in May next year, simultaneously with the national elections.

A peace deal to end decades of fighting in the south would be a key legacy for Aquino, but he said he was prepared for the possibility that it would not be fully implemented under his term.

"If it's my fate that I will not be able to shepherd my country towards having that peace agreement... I hope I will be able to demonstrate the absurdity of going back to the traditional way, which is violence always simmering or threatening to boil over," he said.

The Philippine constitution only allows presidents to serve a single term of six years.

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