SULTAN KUDARAT (Philippines) • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to correct "historical injustice" in a speech to Filipino Muslim rebels as his government seeks to reignite a stalled peace process in the nation's troubled south.
He made the remarks yesterday at a mammoth gathering hosted by the country's main Muslim guerilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which also brought together Christians, rival Muslim factions and tribal groups from the southern region of Mindanao.
Since the 1970s, Muslims have been waging a rebellion seeking autonomy or independence in the mainly Catholic country's southern areas, which they regard as their ancestral homeland. The conflict has claimed more than 120,000 lives and left large areas of Mindanao in poverty.
Mr Duterte, who boasts of having Muslim ancestry, warned that the region could see worse violence if the issue is not resolved. "What is at stake here is the preservation of the Filipino republic and to correct historical injustice," he said.
Mr Duterte added that during the decades when the Philippines was under Spanish and then American colonial rule, the Christian majority had taken control of vast parts of Mindanao, leaving native Muslims and other tribes marginalised.
He also warned that the violence could be exacerbated if followers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) flee to the Philippines after losing their bases in the Middle East.
His warning came just a month after the foreign and local ISIS supporters who ravaged Mindanao's main Muslim city of Marawi were defeated in October, ending a five-month conflict which left about 1,100 people dead.
The 10,000-strong MILF signed a peace deal in 2014 that would give the nation's Muslim minority self-rule over parts of Mindanao, but the proposed law to implement the pact has not managed to get through Congress.
The immediate objective of yesterday's rally was to build support for the proposed law. Mr Duterte said he would work for the law's passage, even calling Congress to a special session where Muslim leaders could explain their plans to the legislators.