Cotabato City, Philippines – The indigenous Moro Muslims, a minority population in the predominantly Christian Philippines, are on the verge of securing their own substantially autonomous territory as Congress hands over a law for President Rodrigo Duterte to sign on Monday.
If all goes according to plan, the Bangsamoro Organic Law will establish the Bangsamoro autonomous region on the country’s southern island of Mindanao and may put an end to five decades of violent conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead. While the law is expected to be signed on Monday, it will still need to be ratified by a plebiscite, which is expected to take place later this year.
The Bangsamoro, which means “Nation of the Moro”, will replace a nominally autonomous Muslim region which has largely been run by the central government in Manila, and has failed to quell the Moro rebellion.
The law will allow the Bangsamoro government to have its own parliament, retain the lion’s share of local revenues, regularly receive a fixed portion of the central government’s revenues and manage the territory’s natural resources.
It will also incorporate Islamic law into the region’s justice system.
In return for autonomy, the law will require the rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to gradually disband its thousands-strong army.
Despite the bill only covering “85 to 90 percent” of items originally afforded the rebels in a 2014 peace agreement that foreshadowed the measure, leaders of the MILF say they are satisfied.
“This may not be a perfect law but it is good to start with,” said Ghazali Jaafar, MILF’s second-in-command.
“And, God willing, now that we have this government, we can improve the lives of our people.”
The law’s passage will cap off 22 years of negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine government.
“Moro”, a term originating from the Spanish word for “Moor”, refers to more than 10 million members of several ethnic groups in Mindanao that evaded the Hispanicisation, and Christianisation, of the rest of the Philippines in the 16th to 19th centuries.
The Moro also resisted US colonisation in the early 20th century.
As a result, they retained a culture and heritage quite distinct from the other 90 million Filipinos. This has led to discrimination, neglect and even persecution by the government.
The Moro provinces are among the country’s poorest.
In 1970, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed and started the first organised Moro rebellion against the Philippines in a bid to establish an independent Islamic state.
When the MNLF settled for autonomy in 1976, a few members split and eventually formed the MILF, which continued fighting for independence.
The MILF first negotiated with the government in 1996 under President Fidel Ramos, but efforts fell through in 1999 when President Joseph Estrada declared “all-out war” against the group. Negotiations restarted in 2001 under President Gloria Arroyo.
A definitive peace deal was signed between the MILF and President Benigno Aquino in October 2012, followed by a “comprehensive agreement” in March 2014.
Congress was already drafting a “Bangsamoro basic law” in January 2015 when a police mission to arrest a target of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah in Maguindanao province resulted in a firefight with MILF fighters. The fiasco discredited the MILF among legislators, who then dropped the Bangsamoro measure from their priorities.
Duterte, who is from Mindanao and claims to be of Moro lineage, promised to establish the Bangsamoro immediately after taking power in 2016. He plans to sign the law as he delivers his yearly State of the Nation Address on Monday.
But before the Bangsamoro can be set up, the organic law will be up for a plebiscite in provinces that would be included in the autonomous territory. The vote is expected to take place before the end of the year.
Worries that the law is a watered-down version of the Moro rebels’ demands could prompt voters to reject it.
The law puts power over the territory’s police and military solely in the hands of the central government, and prohibits the Bangsamoro government from purchasing weapons and firearms, to prevent further rebellion.
The MILF had wanted several plebiscites to allow more provinces, cities and towns to join the Bangsamoro, but were denied that request.
Teresita Deles, a peace process secretary under Aquino, warned of renewed violence should the Bangsamoro fail to meet the Moro’s expectations.
“Too many times having hoped for something that doesn’t come true, it’s more painful,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It makes the situation more hopeless. It may drive people to think of other alternatives.”
Other armed groups have splintered from the MNLF and MILF, rejecting autonomy and pushing for secession. If the Bangsamoro turns out to be yet another disappointment, secessionist groups – and bandits – may capitalise on people’s frustration to recruit more fighters and shore up support.
However, legislators said they could not be too liberal with the measure, and had to make sure it fell within the bounds of the country’s constitution.
“We had problems along the way precisely because we could not grant everything they wanted,” said congressman Rodolfo Farinas after six days of gruelling deliberations on the law.
Leaders of the MILF, who are poised to take top positions in the Bangsamoro government, had made unsuccessful last-minute attempts to get more out of the measure.
“But in fairness to [the MILF leaders], they accepted everything,” Farinas added.
Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri said he was optimistic the agreement would help settle historical tensions in the region.
“We are addressing the aspirations of our brothers and sisters in the Bangsamoro for self-governance,” he said. “So now they’ll be able to chart their own path.”