The fight against Muslim separatists and Maoist guerrillas for
almost five decades has stunted growth in resource-rich rural areas,
besides scaring off potential investment in mines, plantations,
energy and infrastructure.
Under the pact, Muslim rebels agreed to disband guerrilla forces,
surrender weapons, and rebuild their communities while the
government gives them self-rule with wider powers to control their
economy and culture.
But potential threats to lasting peace remain, ranging from a small
breakaway MILF faction to criminal gangs, Islamist militants linked
to al Qaeda and feuding clans, all a reminder to potential investors
that region is volatile.
President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak,
who briefly put aside his own country's problems over a missing
Malaysia Airlines jet to witness the event, smiled and clapped as
peace panel leaders signed the autonomy deal.
"Let us exchange our bullets for ripening fruit, our cynicism for
hope, our histories of sorrow for a future of harmony, peace, and
prosperity," Aquino told a gathering of officials, diplomats,
lawmakers and Muslim community members.
"I will not let peace be snatched from my people again."
The event marked the final chapter in stop-start negotiations that
lasted 17 years.
Malaysia, which has facilitated the peace talks since 2001, pledged
its continued support.
"Much work remains, and there will be setbacks along the way," Najib
said. "But the commitment to peace — the commitment I see in this
room today — must not waver.
The final peace deal incorporates all agreements by the two sides,
including annexes on power and wealth-sharing, and the creation of a
police force for the autonomous Muslim area.
"The comprehensive agreement on the Bangsamoro is the crowning glory
of our struggle," Muslim rebel leader Al Haj Ebrahim Murad said, in
a reference to the new region, which takes for itself the name used
for Muslim and non-Christian natives of southern Mindanao island.
[to top of second column]
He invited other Islamic groups, such as the Moro National
Liberation Front, which opposed the deal, to join the new Bangsamoro
The next important step is the drafting and passage of the
Bangsamoro Basic Law, which Aquino said would be a priority step.
Both houses of Congress promised to pass the bill this year to
create a new entity and expand the existing Autonomous Region in
A plebiscite later in Muslim-dominated areas in the south will
determine the shape and size of the new region.
The government aims to put in place by 2015 the Bangsamoro
Transition Authority, serving as an interim government, Aquino said,
before elections in 2016, when his term ends.
Thousands of MILF fighters and supporters gathered under colorful
tents at the Muslim rebel camp in Maguindanao to celebrate the
conclusion of the deal. Elsewhere in Mindanao, thousands of Muslims
held prayer rallies and celebrations.
"The mood is very festive," said MILF official Nasrullah Abdullah.
"We are so overwhelmed that members and supporters flocked here to
(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato;
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