Mindanao: Islamic Bangsamoro will be autonomous, 'distrust' among Christians and Muslims

The president signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BLO) for Mindanao. For many, it is the key to a lasting peace with the rebels and a tool to counter Islamist extremism. However, "It is still too early to see how the different ethnic groups will react", said Fr D'Ambra. Some 30,000 to 40,000 armed fighters are expected to be demobilised.

Zamboanga (AsiaNews) – The law that will allow self-government for the Philippines’ Islamic minority "is a first step towards peace but it is viewed with distrust by both Christians and by Muslims in Mindanao,” said Fr Sebastiano D'Ambra, speaking to AsiaNews.

A missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Fr D’Ambra has spent 40 years in the southern Filipino island. He is also the founder of Silsilah, a group devoted to Islamic-Christian dialogue.

Last night, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) into law, which many observers consider the key to lasting peace with separatist rebels and a crucial tool to counter the rise of Islamist extremism in the nation's poorest, albeit resource-rich, region.

The law is based on the 2014 peace agreement signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.

More than 120,000 people have died and two million displaced in almost 50 years of conflict. The new organic law sets in motion the process by which the Bangsamoro (Moro nation) becomes an autonomous region that includes mountains, islands and jungles and a population of at least 4 million people.

"It is still early to see how the different ethnic groups that make up the Muslim population of Mindanao will react", said Fr D'Ambra. One group is the Maguindanao, who fought for the MILF; another is the Tausūg, who said they prefer federalism, and finally we have the Maranao.

"The BOL is the result of compromises, achieved within the strict limits of the Constitution,” the clergyman explained. “With this law, some groups did not get everything they wanted. Christians are waiting to see if and how Muslims will overcome their divisions. We'll see. At the moment it's an open question. However, it is certain that there will be new developments ".

The Bangsamoro region will have a government, a parliament and tax powers by 2022. The central government will continue to be responsible for defence, security, foreign affairs and monetary policy. A referendum will be held to determine which Mindanao municipalities will be part of the new region.

As big as South Korea, Mindanao is the most underdeveloped part of the Philippines. However, it has most of its nickel mines and fruit plantations, as well as vast areas the government wants to convert to palm oil production.

The previous administration hoped to pass the law in 2015, but a disastrous operation meant to capture a Malaysian terrorist, Zulkifli Hir, aka Marwan, at the beginning of the year gave the law’s opponents reasons to derail it. In total, 44 Filipino soldiers died in the operation at the hands of MILF fighters.

Duterte has warned that another failure could be disastrous and favour extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) group, which last year inspired an Islamist group that was holed up in the city of Marawi for five months.

The battle to retake the city has fuelled fears that IS plans 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 a radical faction, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which had sworn loyalty to IS.

The Filipino president said failure to approve the law could drive the MILF and other separatist rebels away from peace talks and towards war again.

The Filipino Senate unanimously ratified the BOL on Monday; the House of Representatives did the same the following day.

MILF president Al Haj Murad Ebrahim that 30,000 to 40,000 armed fighters will be demobilised if the autonomy deal signed into law by President Duterte is fully enforced.

MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said the rebels were expected to decommission 30 per cent of their weapons after the referendum.