Moro women join calls for the passage of a law that will create an expanded Muslim region in the southern Philippines during a demonstration in Manila in this July 11 photo. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed off on a law on July 26 that aims to give greater autonomy to Muslims in the southern Philippines.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law comes into effect four years after the government signed a peace agreement with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro ended the armed struggle waged by the MILF since it broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the late 1970s.
Duterte said he still has to meet MILF and MNLF leaders to discuss the new law that will pave the way for the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region.
"I'm trying to talk to everybody. I talked to the enemies of the state.... Let us talk because we are old. Fighting is no longer an option," said the president.
"To my brother Muslims and Christians, I really plead for peace. I do not want war. I cannot fight my own people," he added in a speech in Mindanao on July 26.
The new law provides for the creation of a "transitional" body — composed mostly of former rebel fighters — that will facilitate the expansion of an existing Muslim region.
Under the law, the national government will retain police and military forces in the area while the rebels are expected to lay down their weapons in phases.
Christians, Muslims welcome new law
A Catholic prelate in Mindanao welcomed the signing of the new law, saying that it will help achieve peace in the southern part of the country.
Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz expressed hope that the peace deal would be "inclusive and not discriminate against others" by ensuring that religious freedom will be respected.
"It is a welcome development in our desire to have peace in Mindanao," he said even as he warned that some Moro rebel factions are against the new law.
The prelate also emphasized respect for religious freedom, saying that, "respect of religious traditions must prevail."
"Peace and harmony will be enjoyed if this new Bangsamoro government is inclusive and does not discriminate others," he added.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said the new law is "another milestone in our decades-long struggle for meaningful and just legislation."
"We have succeeded in writing another chapter in our history of struggle, but it does not end here," said Hataman in a statement.
He said the "struggle continues" as the people of Mindanao "seek to change a culture of discrimination against our people, to heal the wounds in the hearts of our people."
"We must remain faithful to our commitments and vigilant at every turn as we implement the provisions that will change the lives of our people," said the governor.
Antidote to years of conflict
In a statement, the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogues in Southeast Asia said the new law "is an antidote to years of conflict and strife."
Aldrin Penamora of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches said the dream for peace, justice and progress is at last becoming a reality."
MILF vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, said public consultations to discuss the law would be held in rebel-held territories in the coming days.
"There is a necessity for this consultation because it has been the policy of the MILF that whatever major policy we adapt, there must be consultations," he said.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law, which outlines the process to set up a self-administered territory for the Moro people, is the result of the 2014 peace deal that aimed at ending almost 50 years of conflict in Mindanao that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced about two million others.
The creation of a new political entity will give the approximately four million Muslim Moro people living in the southern Philippines greater autonomy than the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Bong Sarmiento contributed to this report from South Cotabato province.