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1 February, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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New autonomous region in the Philippines will go some way to righting a historic wrong

Sholto Byrnes
New autonomous region in the Philippines will go some way to righting a historic wrong
A Bangsamoro supporter in Cotabato City, southern Philippines

Less than 48 hours after a resounding vote in favour of a new autonomous Muslim-majority region in the south of the Philippines, two bombs tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral in the city of Jolo, killing 20 people and wounding dozens more. The terrorist attack on Sunday, for which ISIS took responsibility, was thought to have been revenge for the local province of Sulu voting no in the referendum. However, the vote remains significant and represents a major milestone on the road to justice for the Bangsamoro, the mainly Muslim population named by the colonising Spanish after the Moors, who once occupied their own peninsula.

The new region could spell the end to a long-running insurgency that has cost 120,000 lives and displaced about two million people in the south of the country. Some 2.2 million voters took part in the referendum, or plebiscite, last Friday to decide whether Bangsamoro Autonomous Region should be created across part of Mindanao island. A second plebiscite will take place next month in other provinces in which a remaining 600,000 voters will make their decision about whether to join it.

Colonisation might have succeeded in converting most of the Philippines to Catholicism, but the Bangsamoro have historically always held out. One reason for them maintaining such a different sense of identity is because when, in the 1930s, the US government was considering plans for eventual independence, a group of Bangsamoro leaders asked that a completely separate state be created for them. Their wishes were ignored and after independence in 1946, Philippine governments were accused by the Bangsamoro of attempting to erase their culture by transporting in Christians from elsewhere in the country to live there. Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) went so far as to say that the policy constituted attempted genocide.

Over the decades, various forms of autonomy had been tried but they were insufficient to satisfy local aspirations or to bring to an end the separatist and often violent struggles chiefly spearheaded first by the MNLF and then by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split from the former in 1977. There have been many false starts along the way. In 1996, for instance, then president Fidel Ramos signed a "general cessation of hostilities" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, only for his successor Joseph Estrada to declare "all-out war" on the group four years later. The latest agreement emerged from long-running talks hosted by the government of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak, leading to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government signing a historic framework agreement in 2012, followed by a "comprehensive agreement" in 2014.

In the aftermath of a deadly clash with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front the following year in which 44 Filipino policemen died, then president Benigno Aquino failed to get the necessary legislation through parliament. It was his controversial successor Rodrigo Duterte who last year managed to pass the Bangsamoro Organic Law, paving the way for the creation of the region.

As the first president from Mindanao, he has long vowed to bring peace to the area, his determination forged from personal experience as he has cousins who are members of rebel groups. For all his wild talk and his reckless approach to law enforcement, if the autonomous region brings resolution to this conflict,  Duterte can be proud of an achievement no other Filipino leader has managed to bring about.

The new region will have real powers. It will have a chief minister, a wali, or ceremonial head, and an 80-member parliament. It will have authority in 55 areas, including the administration of justice, health, housing, agriculture, water and trade and industry. It will retain 75 per cent of national taxes collected in the region and one twentieth of the Philippines' national budget will be reserved for the Bangsamoro government – crucial to its success, given that poverty levels are significantly higher in the region than in the rest of the country and if development does not accompany the new region's early years, the whole experiment will likely be deemed to have failed.  It is also an example of how patience and a willingness by governments to recognise that violence, while never acceptable, can spring from real maltreatment and inequality.

It also shows how careful and persistent negotiations can persuade terrorists to take the path of peace.

 

The writer specialises in

international relations

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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