Philippine Muslim peace process set to clear key hurdle

MANILA - A self-rule bill for the Philippines' Muslim minority will likely reach Congress next week, the government said Tuesday, clearing a key hurdle in efforts to end one of Asia's longest rebellions.

The 10,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a pact with President Benigno Aquino's government in March aimed at ending more than four decades of bloodshed that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Concerns about the process then arose after Aquino rejected an initial draft law, put together by a panel of rebel and government negotiators, to create a Muslim self-rule area in the south of the mainly Catholic nation.

But presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said Tuesday Aquino had reviewed a subsequent draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and it was now "99.99 per cent complete".

"The draft BBL is undergoing final stages of refinement... it is expected to be submitted to Congress before the President leaves for Europe next week," Deles said in a statement.

Aquino will travel to Europe on September 13.

Aquino has majority support in both chambers of Congress, and he is expected to be able to secure its support for the bill.

"There's enough goodwill in Congress to see this through at the soonest possible time," chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told AFP.

Under the peace pact's timetable, the law is meant to be passed by Congress before the end of this year.

This would allow time for the autonomous region to be put in place before Aquino's six-year term ends in mid-2016.

Once the law is passed, people living in the proposed autonomous region would have to endorse it in a plebiscite scheduled for 2015.

The first poll for the region's parliament would be held alongside the 2016 national elections.

The MILF welcomed the government's announcement that the bill was ready to go before Congress.

"The situation was heated before but our commanders are relieved with this development because we hurdled this difficult stage," MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told AFP.

However Jaafar cautioned there were still many potential pitfalls ahead, citing legislators' potential amendments to the draft bill.

He said the MILF was also concerned about the law being challenged in the Supreme Court.

The court struck down a peace deal between the MILF and Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, in 2008, triggering violence from two rebel commanders that left about 400 people dead.