Philippine lawmakers clear Bill granting Muslim minority self-rule

MANILA - The Philippines has moved closer to ending decades of conflict on its resource-rich island of Mindanao, after lawmakers approved a Bill that will eventually allow self-rule for the country's Muslim minority.

Lower House lawmakers voted on Wednesday (May 30) to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The senate passed its own version on Thursday.

A bicameral panel will have to reconcile the two versions, which differ on many key provisions. But President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign the law before he delivers his State of the Nation address on July 23.

The BBL is seen as key to forging lasting peace with separatist rebels and thwarting the rise of Islamist extremism in the Philippines' poorest and most dangerous region.

It stems from a peace deal signed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim rebel group, with the government in 2014 to end nearly 50 years of conflict that has seen more than 120,000 people killed and two million displaced.

The previous administration had hoped to pass the Bill in 2015, but a disastrous raid to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, earlier that year gave its opponents reasons to derail it.

Marwan, who had a US$5 million bounty from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, was killed in his hideout in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province.

But 44 police commandos who took part in the raid died when they ran into a much larger force from the MILF that were said to be protecting Marwan.

The Bill again gained traction, after about a thousand Muslim militants allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stormed and seized control of large parts of Marawi City in Mindanao in May last year.

The five-month battle for Marawi was the biggest the Philippines has seen since World War II and stoked wider concerns that ISIS had ambitions to turn Mindanao into a base for its operations in South-east Asia.

Hundreds of people were killed in Marawi, more than 350,000 were displaced and half the city was left in ruins.

Mr Duterte has warned that failure to pass the BBL could see the MILF and other separatist rebels abandon peace talks and declare war again.

"If nothing happens to the BBL, there will be war in Mindanao," he said.

He said he could not control rebel groups if they take up arms again and seek an independent state in the south.

Mr Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF’s vice-chairman for political affairs, said the MILF “wants more” than what is currently included in the versions in Congress.

“We want our proposals to be included in the final version of the BBL. If not, at least it should not be watered down,” he said.

The MILF had pressed for the Bangsamoro region to have its own police force. Lawmakers instead decided that the central government would continue to oversee security in the region. They also approved a lower subsidy for growth projects in the region.

The MILF is bitterly opposed to Islamist extremists and has been collaborating with government troops to fight a radical faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS.

The BBL outlines the process to set up a self-administered territory in an area sometimes referred to as the Bangsamoro (nation of Moros), encompassing provinces that are home to at least 4 million people, mostly Muslim.

Once signed into law, the Bangsamoro region will have its own executive, legislature and fiscal powers. The central government will continue to oversee defence, security, foreign affairs and monetary policy.

A plebiscite will be held to determine which provinces in Mindanao will be part of the new territory.

Mindanao, an island the size of South Korea, is the Philippines' most underdeveloped region. But it is home to most of its nickel mines and biggest fruit farms, besides vast tracts of land the government wants to convert into palm oil plantations.

Its notorious clan wars, lawlessness and conflicts with Muslim and communist rebel groups, though, have kept investors at bay.