Philippine leader files bill giving autonomy to Muslims

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino sent to parliament Wednesday 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 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," Aquino 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.

Aquino said this would improve the lives of millions of Filipino 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 Aquino time to put in place a regional government before his six-year term ends in mid-2016.

Once the law is passed, its residents would have to endorse it in a plebiscite scheduled for 2015.

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

Both Senate President Franklin Drilon and opposition Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jnr. said the bill has broad support, though they warned there may not be enough time for it to pass 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 Marcos.

The rebellion began more than 40 years ago when Marcos's late father Ferdinand Marcos Snr. was president, and has since claimed tens of thousands of lives.

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.

The United Nations office in Manila congratulated the two sides and 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 in a statement.