Philippine leader receives draft law for Muslim self-rule

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday formally received a draft law representing a crucial step towards the creation of an autonomous area for the country's Muslim minority, following a historic peace deal.

Aquino received the Bangsamoro Basic Law from a special transition committee headed by representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the main Muslim rebel group in the majority-Catholic Philippines, his aides said.

The law will speed up the process of creating the autonomous region as part of a peace process to end decades of fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Just last month, the MILF signed a landmark pact to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest conflicts, promising to give up their arms for an autonomous homeland in the southern Philippines.

As part of this accord, a transition committee was formed that drafted the "basic law" for the autonomous area.

Presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said that the draft law would stand the legal challenges of groups which are opposing the accord.

"Some groups have already made known their intention to challenge the Bangsamoro Basic Law," Valte said.

"The panel... have made sure that they had the proper legal guidance while (the draft) was being crafted and that it will stand up to scrutiny," she added.

Aquino has said he will submit the draft to Congress so the legislative body can pass it, ideally by the end of this year.

This will allow time for other steps such as a local plebiscite to determine which parts of the country will be included in the autonomous area.

The government is hopeful of completing the entire process before the president steps down in mid-2016.

However Christian politicians are expected to oppose the draft law while Muslim rebel hardliners have said they will not give up their fight for an independent Islamic state in the south.

The autonomous region cannot exist without the law, but there are no guarantees that Aquino can secure majority support in Congress on the highly sensitive issue.