MANILA • President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has signed a landmark law aimed at giving expanded autonomy to Muslims in the south of the country, his spokesman said, with the legislation expected to bring some measure of peace to a region choked by four decades of separatist violence.
The long-delayed law signed on Thursday came four years after the government signed a peace deal with the separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which dropped its bid for full independence in return for the right to self-rule.
The group had fought in a fierce uprising since 1978 that left about 120,000 people dead and pushed pockets of the deep south of the Philippines into a cycle of extreme poverty and violence.
The new legislation, called the Bangsamoro Organic Law, or BOL, was supposed to have been passed early this week, but infighting among allies of Mr Duterte in Congress delayed its passage.
The President's spokesman, Mr Harry Roque, said on Thursday that the presidential palace had now received a copy of the law.
"After much confusion, the President has signed into law the Bangsamoro Organic Law," Mr Roque said in an interview.
The estimated number of people left dead as a result of the uprising that MILF has fought in since 1978.
The legislation mandates the expansion of an autonomous region that would be led initially by a "transitional authority" composed mostly of former fighters before eventually being governed by its own Parliament.
The region is intended to supersede an earlier autonomous zone, composed of five provinces, that was considered to have benefited only a small number of Muslim families and that had been wracked by violence.
The new area is expected to be larger and better funded.
Under the new plan, the government would retain police and military forces in the area, combatants would lay down their weapons in phases, and six of the guerilla group's camps would be converted to "productive civilian communities", according to the leader of the MILF Al Haj Murad Ebrahim.
Mr Murad said that the rebel group had 30,000 to 40,000 fighters and that those combatants would willingly give up their weapons, a first step towards reducing the proliferation of unlicensed firearms in the region.
He said the new law was expected to decrease extremism in the south because young Muslims would finally feel they were being given a voice and a fairer chance to succeed.
He added that the move would also make it harder for operatives of groups linked to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to recruit disaffected youth in the region.
Last year, fighters from South-east Asia and the Middle East helped a local faction of ISIS to take over the city of Marawi, leading to a five-month battle that ended in October, leaving hundreds dead. The faction was composed mainly of fighters formerly allied with the MILF who had become frustrated with the peace process.
Mr Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, agreed that the new law could bring calm to the south.
"But it will not automatically bring peace," Mr Banlaoi said, stressing that the key to reducing the violence was making sure that the MILF followed through with its promise to disarm and decommission its combatants.
NEW YORK TIMES