29 July, 2018
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a law to give greater self-rule to Muslims living in the country's south.
The legislation received full congressional approval before Duterte signed the measure on July 26. The law aims to settle a nearly 50-year-old conflict between the Philippine government and Muslims fighting for an independent state. Negotiations on the deal began more than 20 years ago.
The measure is called the Bangsamoro Organic Law. The law creates an autonomous area on the southern island of Mindanao. While the rest of the Philippines is mainly Catholic, an estimated five million Muslims live in the southern area.
Fighting by Muslim rebels in the south has left more than 120,000 people dead since the 1970s. The area has traditionally suffered from lower rates of employment, income, education and economic development than the rest of the country.
The law gives the new autonomous region expanded political and economic powers. A government payment of about $1.3 billion is to be set aside to support new development. The measure also permits the area to collect its own taxes.
The agreement aims to enforce a historic, but uneasy, peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group.
In that 2014 peace deal, the MILF promised to give up its fight for an independent homeland and surrender weapons. In return, the group would gain expanded self-rule for the area in the south.
Last year, former MILF militants helped Islamic State-linked fighters from the Philippines and other countries take over the southern city of Marawi.
Philippine troops, supported by U.S. and Australian surveillance and intelligence, recaptured the city. The fighting killed more than 1,200 people. Most were Islamic fighters, but the fighting left the city in ruins.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim is head of the MILF. He told reporters he was hopeful the new law would help bring together different rebel groups and prevent fighting like what took place in Marawi. He says the measure has widespread public backing. That will make it harder for foreign extremists to form local alliances and win support.
Asec Felix Castro is the local manager of the government agency in charge of rebuilding Marawi. He told VOA he thinks the new autonomous area can help people in the Muslim south if they can find the right individuals to lead self-rule efforts.
"I'd like to think that they could achieve their hope with the proper leadership from among themselves."
Henelito Sevilla is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of the Philippines. He says a sense of autonomy for Muslims should make Mindanao safer.
"The self-determination that they are longing for in terms of practicing their own religious and cultural rights - as well as the exploitation of their own resources - that would bring growth and development, and of course, which follows is security in their Muslim areas."
People in the southern area will get the chance to approve the new law during a referendum planned for this fall. After that, President Duterte is expected to appoint an 80-member group to discuss setting up an independent parliamentary system.
I'm Bryan Lynn.
Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from VOA News, the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. Mario Ritter was the editor.
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Words in This Story
autonomous – adj. independent; having the power to make your own decisions
region – n. a particular area
surveillance – n. the careful watching of something or someone, especially by police or the government
proper – adj. correct or suitable
self-determination – n. the ability or power to make independent decisions
exploitation – n. using someone or something in an unfair way
referendum – n. election in which people in an area vote for or against an issue of public concern