The Philippine Government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group completed talks Saturday on a deal to end four decades of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people and helped foster Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia.
The accord between Filipino negotiators and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front calls for Muslim self—rule in parts of the southern Philippines in exchange for the deactivation of the rebel force. Military presence in the proposed autonomous region would be restricted.
Much now will depend on how the accord is enforced, in particular whether the 11,000—strong rebel forces are able to maintain security in areas they would come under their control. At least four other smaller Muslim rebel groups are still fighting Manila’s rule in the southern Mindanao region, and could act as spoilers.
Officials from both sides announced the conclusion of talks in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which has brokered the years—long negotiations. The accord and three other pacts signed last year make up a final peace agreement that is to be signed in the Philippine capital, Manila, possibly next month, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
“This will give the just and lasting peace that our brothers in Mindanao are seeking.” said Lacierda, referring to the volatile southern region and homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Government negotiators, some teary—eyed, embraced each other after the conclusion of the talks. Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer hailed the progress and said “good luck to everyone on the next stage, the implementation stage.”
Saturday’s accord marks the most significant progress during 13 years of on—and—off negotiations with the Moro fighters to tame a tenacious insurgency that has left more than 120,000 people dead and derailed development in Muslim—populated southern regions that are among the most destitute in the Philippines.
The United States and other Western governments have supported the talks, worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al—Qaida—linked extremists who have sought sanctuary in the region in the past.
Under the peace deal, the Moro insurgents agreed to end violence in exchange for broader autonomy. An existing five—province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better—funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
Despite the milestone, both the government and the rebels acknowledged that violence would not end overnight in a region that has long grappled with a volatile mix of crushing poverty, huge numbers of illegal firearms, clan wars and weak law enforcement.