MANILA • President Rodrigo Duterte unveiled a law yesterday granting greater autonomy to the Philippines' Muslim south, as he expressed hope the measure will at last end decades of bloody separatist conflict.
At a ceremony in the presidential palace in Manila, he handed a symbolic copy of the new law to the leader of the country's largest Muslim rebel group.
He signed the legislation last month, a key step to ending one of Asia's longest and deadliest conflicts. It was a crucial missing element to a languishing peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which, along with other groups, has waged a rebellion that has claimed about 150,000 lives in the Mindanao region since the 1970s.
"I hope (the law) will finally end the decades-old conflict that is rooted in the Bangsamoro's fight for self-determination and the recognition of their unique identity," Mr Duterte said, referring to the region where much of the conflict has raged.
The law enforces a historic but fragile 2014 peace deal where the MILF vowed to give up its quest for an independent homeland and lay down its fighters' weapons in return for self-rule.
Both sides believe creating the area will head off the lure of violent extremism and draw investments to a region where brutal poverty and perennial bloodshed have spawned radical armed groups.
The initial peace accord was signed under Mr Duterte's predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, but Congress then refused to pass the supporting law.
Rebel factions and militants began pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group soon afterwards and last year attacked the southern city of Marawi, sparking a five-month battle that left 1,200 people dead and levelled much of the town.
Muslim rebels regard Mindanao, the southern third of the archipelago, as their ancestral homeland dating back to when Arabic traders arrived there in the 13th century.
In 1996, another major rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, signed a peace deal with the government that created a Muslim autonomous area in the south. But critics, including the MILF, said it had failed to bring peace and development.
Under the law Mr Duterte signed, a new political entity known as the Bangsamoro would replace the current autonomous region, gaining more power and resources. The law has to be approved in a regional referendum expected by early next year, and is widely expected to pass.