Lower house and Senate approve the Bangsamoro Islamic region

A bicameral panel will reconcile differences between the two versions. The Bangsamoro region will have executive, legislative and fiscal powers. A plebiscite will be held to determine which parts of Mindanao will be part of the new entity. For Duterte, the law is fundamental to continue the peace talks and stem Islamist advance.

Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Philippines has moved closer to ending decades of conflict on its resource-rich island of Mindanao, after lawmakers approved a Bill that would eventually grant self-rule for the country's Muslim minority.

On Wednesday, the lower house of the Filipino Congress voted 227 to 11 with 2 abstentions to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The Senate passed its own version on Thursday.

A bicameral panel will have to reconcile the two versions, which differ on many key provisions. But President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign the law before he delivers his State of the Nation address on 23 July.

The BBL is seen as key to lasting peace with separatist rebels and to stopping the rise of Islamist extremism in the Philippines' poorest and most dangerous region.

The BBL follows a peace deal signed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim rebel group, with the government in 2014 to end nearly 50 years of conflict that has seen more than 120,000 people killed and two million displaced.

The bill outlines the process to set up a self-administered territory in an area sometimes referred to as Bangsamoro (nation of Moros), encompassing mountains, islands and jungles that are home to at least 4 million people, mostly Muslim.

The previous administration had hoped to pass the Bill in 2015, but a disastrous raid to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, earlier that year gave its opponents reasons to derail it. In the operations, 44 police commandos died when they ran into a much larger MILF force.

Duterte has warned that failure to pass the BBL could favour other extremists like the Islamic State group, which last year inspired an Islamist alliance that besieged the city of Marawi for five months.

The battle for Marawi was the biggest the Philippines has seen since World War Two and stoked wider concerns that the Islamic State group had ambitions to turn Mindanao into a base for its operations in Southeast Asia.

In Marawi, the MILF opposed the terrorists and collaborated with government troops to fight the radical faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which had sworn loyalty to IS.

The Filipino president warned that the failure to approve the BBL could push the MILF and other separatist rebels to abandon the peace talks and declare war again.

Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF’s deputy chairman for political affairs, said the MILF “wants more” than what is currently included in the versions in Congress.

The MILF had pressed for the Bangsamoro region to have its own police force. Lawmakers instead decided that the central government would continue to oversee security in the region. They also approved a lower subsidy for growth projects in the region.

Once signed into law, the Bangsamoro region will have its own executive, legislature and fiscal powers. The central government will continue to oversee defence, security, foreign affairs and monetary policy.

A plebiscite will be held to determine which provinces in Mindanao will be part of the new territory.

Mindanao, an island as big as South Korea, is the most underdeveloped region of the Philippines. But it is home to most of its nickel mines and the largest fruit farms, as well as vast areas that the government wants to convert into palm oil plantations.