Filipino Muslims welcome landmark peace deal

Posted at 10/10/2012 11:37 PM | Updated as of 10/11/2012 12:54 AM

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines - Filipino Muslims living in southern Philippines express hope that the landmark peace agreement between the government and rebels will end violence and improve their lives.

Muslims in the southern Philippines welcome the peace agreement reached by the central government and Muslim rebels, hoping it will end the 40-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people and stalled development in the resource-rich region.

Placards reading "End the conflict" and "Experience real peace and progress" lined a highway in Maguindanao province, days after President Benigno Aquino announced the agreement.

Violence has disrupted lives in Muslim-dominated provinces of Mindanao, where hundreds have been displaced in decades of fighting between government troops and rebels.

Suad Dimauko, a mother of 11, has moved her family from one house to the next, fleeing fighting in Maguindanao province, a hotspot which is home to many supporters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Only three of Dimauko's children are in school. The family survives on corn farming, but their crops are at times destroyed when troops sweep through their village.

Just when Dimauko thought they had found a safe place in the town of Datu Unsay, soldiers fought with a breakaway group of the MILF last August, forcing 60,000 people to flee.

Dimauko sought shelter for one month in an evacuation centre where food was scarce, she said.

"Certainly, what we want is peace so that we won't have to leave this place, to evacuate. It's difficult to be displaced, with many children," Dimauko said.

Datu Unsay Central Elementary School was not spared by last August's fighting. Shells destroyed the roofs of some classrooms and left bullet marks on the wall.

Around 200 of the school's 1,000 students have not returned. Some classes are held outdoors, on a platform.

School principal Maria Elena Ibrahim is hopeful that the peace agreement will bring normality to the lives of the school children.

"I hope we will have peace and order in our community, so that the children can continue with their studies, and their parents can look for good livelihood," Ibrahim said.

Muslims in Maguindanao province are optimistic that the political entity called "Bangsamoro," which will eventually be created after a law is passed, will usher in development.

The south's volatile and often violent politics could still hamper the plans. There is a risk that radical Islamic factions could split from the MILF and carry on fighting in a region that has a history of links with al Qaeda militants.

Shortly after the announcement, a breakaway group said it would continue to fight for an independent Islamic state.

Among the youth in Maguindanao province however, hopes are high that the future leaders of Bangsamoro will overcome politics and establish a government steeped in Islamic values.

"Muslims are not bad people. Not all have bad intentions. Of course they just want to fight for what they want, so that everyone's welfare will be protected," said high school student Noraynon Jariah Pandan, who goes to an Islamic school.

The MILF and the government still need to thrash out details of their broad agreement in the months ahead as a 15-member commission drafts a law by 2015 to send to Congress.

The two sides agreed only that there would be "just and equitable" sharing of resources, which are believed to include large reserves of natural gas. Determining how much power the area will have over law, such as its scope to administer sharia justice, is another remaining challenge for negotiators.

Local leaders including Cotabato City vice-mayor Muslimin Sema have mixed feelings about the peace deal. Sema is also chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, another rebel group that signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.

Sema brought up the failures of the quasi-autonomous political body called the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), established in 1989 to quell rebel fighting.

Heavily dependent on the central government, ARMM is often criticised for corruption and warlordism. Some of its provinces are among the country's poorest.

"Of course many want peace, but you know, seeing how the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was governed, how it is, you know, it seems some people were turned off. They don't want to be part of a messy organisation," Sema said.

The newly conceived Bangsamoro area will gain powers such as the right to impose taxes to cut central government subsidies, a bigger share in revenues from natural resources and a more active role in internal security.

But the Philippine government will continue to hold exclusive powers of defence and security, foreign policy, monetary policy, citizenship and naturalisation.