Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels back new draft law establishing a more powerful autonomous region in Mindanao.
The Philippine Congress has vowed to fast-track a long-delayed bill establishing self-rule for Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao, in response to President Rodrigo Duterte‘s warning that another war could break out if the legislation collapses.
Three House of Representatives sub-committees are consolidating their reports on Muslim autonomy, and public consultations in seven communities have been scheduled before the bill’s expected passage in mid-March, according to Ruby Sahali, House member from the southern province of Tawi-Tawi.
“I cannot stress enough the urgency to pass this bill,” Sahali, chairman of the House Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity that is overseeing the bill, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
“The government must deliver on its promises in the peace deal signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),” she said.
Sahali expects the Senate will pass the bill soon after the House version is approved.
The MILF is the largest political and armed group fighting for autonomy on behalf of the minority Muslims in Mindanao.
After decades of fighting and 17 years of negotiations, the group signed a comprehensive peace deal with Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, in 2014.
In exchange for a promised autonomy under the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the group agreed to lay down its arms.
However, the push for Muslim autonomy was stalled following a botched operation in 2015, which left dozens of police commandos dead, souring public opinion in the predominantly Catholic country.
Hopes were revived when Duterte took over in 2016. But less than a year into his presidency, armed Muslim fighters who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) attacked the southern city of Marawi.
Over 1,000 fighters, soldiers and civilians were killed, and an estimated 250,000 were displaced, during the five-month-long siege. The violence set back the discussion of BBL a few more months.
The siege had also prompted Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao. That order, which has been questioned by civil rights activists, has been extended until the end of 2018.
Sahali said the Marawi siege serves as a wake-up call to quickly pass the BBL legislation.
“Extremism emanates from the frustration and loss of hope of the Muslim population towards the government,” the House member said. “The fear is that what happened in Marawi could happen elsewhere in Mindanao, not only in the Muslim areas.”
Last week, Duterte had urged passage of the bill, saying, “It’s about time the historical injustices committed against them are corrected.
“If nothing happens to the BBL, there will be war in Mindanao,” he said.
The passage of the bill would be a major achievement for Duterte, who is from Mindanao, and who pledged a peace deal during the 2016 campaign.
Previous presidents have tried and failed to deliver peace in the resource-rich, southern island.
Mikee Pantaran Maruhom, a student leader with family roots from Marawi, said that while BBL could “help stop another version” of the Marawi siege, the proposed autonomy would not hold for long “if the same style of leadership will continue” in their communities.
“I think the BBL can placate a huge number of secessionists” including the MILF, he said.
But it could turn out to be “another ARMM in the making … if warlordism and corruption will continue”, Maruhom said, referring to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, an existing government framework, which grants limited autonomy to a number of southern Muslim-majority provinces.
“What brought this need for autonomy, aside from asserting our right to freely live with our beliefs, are the social injustices that we experienced – misgovernance, displacement and even lack of opportunity,” Maruhom told Al Jazeera.
He urged that BBL should be “free from corruption and self-interest”.
Maruhom also said many in his community are worried that the passage of the BBL “might be just for the sake of campaign promise and compliance”, and that the ongoing push to change the constitution might sideline the real concerns of Muslim minorities.
The nearly 50 years of Muslim conflict in Mindanao has killed at least 120,000 people and displaced more than two million.