President Benigno Aquino (center) witnesses the handover of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law by MILF leader Mohagher Iqbal (left) to House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte (right) and Senate President Franklin Drilon (second from right) during the turnover ceremony on Wednesday in Manila (Photo by Rey Baniquet)
The Philippine government on Wednesday introduced a proposed law aimed at paving the way toward a formal end to four decades of war in the southern Philippines region of Mindanao.
In submitting the draft law to Congress, President Benigno Aquino said the "long and thorough process" of drafting the law aims to ensure a lasting peace in a protracted conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.
"I assure you: The Bangsamoro Basic Law was crafted to be fair, just, and acceptable to all, whether they are Moros, Lumads, or Christians," the president said as he presented the final draft of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law in a ceremony at the presidential palace.
"Let us now open our arms for our Muslim countrymen.... We are all confident that our collective efforts towards a more progressive and more peaceful Philippines will continue," the president said.
The submission to Congress is seen as significant as it means Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group have agreed, after months of tense talks, on the entire legal underpinning for Muslim self-governance in the southern region of Mindanao. Aquino called for the passage "in the soonest possible time" of the proposed law that would have MILF leaders governing a region comprising about 10 percent of the Philippines' land area.
Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF chief negotiator, expressed confidence that the creation of an autonomous government for the Moro people will end the "radicalization in Mindanao".
"I think this is the main antidote to whatever radicalization there might be," Iqbal told reporters following the ceremony. He added that extremism in the region would likely continue despite the political solution, but “not to the extent that it will create a problem".
The MILF had earlier accused the government of diluting an earlier draft of the law. On Wednesday, however, Iqbal said he believed lawmakers would eventually produce legislation that would be faithful to Wednesday’s proposed law.
Teresita Quintos Deles, the presidential adviser on the peace process, pledged that every line of the draft law would be “subjected to the sunshine of democratic debate”.
"This is the farthest distance we have reached in our peace journey with the MILF, and the most significant political step we have taken in our political roadmap for the Bangsamoro," she said in a statement.
The House of Representatives has created a committee to deliberate on the proposed law as leaders of Congress promised to pass the measure by March 2015.
Once the law is passed, its residents would have to endorse it in a plebiscite scheduled for 2015.
In a statement on Wednesday, the United Nations in the Philippines welcomed the finalization of the draft law.
"This is a critical milestone in the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and a crucial achievement in ensuring lasting peace and sustainable development in Mindanao and in the wider Philippines," it said in its statement.
Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said the law is "for the children who wish to run across school grounds instead of running for their lives".
"This law is for families who want to put life into the earth through crops and produce, no longer to dig graves for their fathers and sons who have fallen in war. This law is what will help them realize their wishes and dreams," Hataman added.