'End to Muslim rebellion still long way off'
MANILA, Philippines - A final resolution to a decades-long Muslim rebellion in the Philippines is a long way off with many tough issues yet to be resolved, experts cautioned Monday, a day after a peace roadmap was unveiled.
President Benigno Aquino raised hopes of ending the conflict when he announced the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had agreed on a blueprint for achieving peace before his term ended in 2016.
Under the plan, the MILF's 12,000 soldiers would lay down their arms and the group would give up its claims for an independent homeland in the southern Philippines, in return for the creation of a new semi-autonomous Muslim region.
However both sides acknowledged that many of the most sensitive points of contention still needed to be addressed, while experts questioned whether a final agreement could be implemented before Aquino stood down.
"There are real differences between the two parties that they need to thrash out," Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told AFP.
"Meeting the deadline of 2016 will be difficult... the hardest part of the negotiations have only begun."
The MILF and other Muslim organisations regard the southern region of Mindanao as their ancestral homeland dating back to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s.
The centuries-old animosities escalated in the 1970s amid a government crackdown, with Muslims taking up arms and establishing formal rebel groups.
About 150,000 people have died in the conflict, most in the 1970s when an all-out war raged. The MILF is the largest and most dangerous rebel group left.
The organisation has tried and failed to negotiate peace deals with previous governments, and its leadership remains cautious this time around even though it has confidence in Aquino.
"This is just a preliminary agreement... there is much work to be done," MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar told AFP.
Among the most contentious points between the two sides that still need to be addressed is how to share the largely untapped wealth on offer in Mindanao.
The region is one of the country's most fertile farming areas, and is believed to have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold, copper and other minerals available for exploitation.
Aquino said on Sunday that the people in the planned new autonomous region would have a "fair and equitable" share of its wealth, but gave no details.
Steve Rood, Philippine country director for the Asia Foundation and a formal monitor of the peace talks, said he believed a final resolution was possible before Aquino stood down.
"If I was to bet money, I would bet it can be done," Rood told AFP, but said wealth sharing remained a major obstacle.
"That has been one of the sticking points."
Another problem that has yet to be addressed is the MILF's insistence on a constitutional amendment to give legal certainty to the autonomous region, and potentially give it more power than the government is willing to concede.
Aside from the extent of power issue, Aquino's government has resisted changing the constitution because of the difficulties in securing support from the majority Catholic public and politicians who represent them.
Even without constitutional change, the national parliament will have to approve a "Basic Law" for the planned new autonomous region.
The government is aiming for parliament to approve this in 2015, to allow enough time for implementation before Aquino stands down.
Aquino, who is one of the most popular presidents in the country's history, can convince enough MPs to approve the Basic Law, according to Rood and Banlaoi.
But one concern is that if there are delays in the peace process the situation would be back to square one when a new president takes office in 2016.
Under the Philippine constitution, presidents can serve just one six-year term.
"If it is not signed by 2016, we may have another government that would have a new outlook to the problem," Banlaoi said.