About 200 Muslim rebels led by their elusive chief have arrived in the Philippine capital for the signing of a preliminary peace pact aimed at ending one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.
The agreement is the first major, if tentative, step towards a final settlement that grants minority Muslims in the southern Philippines broad autonomy in exchange for ending the violence that has killed tens of thousands.
A product of 15 years of negotiations facilitated by neighbouring Malaysia, the agreement sets in motion a road map to a final document that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and president Benigno Aquino III’s government plan to clinch before his six-year terms ends in 2016.
The signing will be witnessed by Mr Aquino, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, who will set foot for the first time in Manila’s Malacanang presidential palace, where officials prepared a red-carpet welcome.
“That first step alone signifies a giant leap in the relations between the two sides,” said the presidential adviser for the peace process, Teresita Deles.
Mr Murad has seldom appeared in public in past years. Mr Aquino met him secretly in Tokyo for the first time last year to underscore their commitment to settle the rebellion.
About 300 Muslims from Manila and southern provinces held a noisy rally outside the palace yesterday in support of the preliminary accord, calling for more development in the resource-rich but impoverished southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Security has been tightened in the capital although no disruptions are expected.
The agreement is to be signed by government negotiator Marvic Leonen and his rebel counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal. It outlines general agreements on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro.
It calls for the establishment of a 15-member transition commission to draft a law creating the new Muslim-administered region. Rebel forces will be deactivated gradually, the agreement says, without specifying a timetable.
The deal is the most significant progress in years of tough bargaining with the 11,000-strong Moro group to end an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead and displaced about two million others.
Western governments have worried over the presence of small numbers of al Qaida-linked militants from the Middle East and south-east Asia seeking combat training and collaboration with the Filipino insurgents.
One of those extremist groups, Abu Sayyaf, is not part of any negotiations, but the hope is that the peace agreement will isolate its militants and deny them sanctuary and logistical support they had previously received from rebel commanders.
One of those hardline commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off from the main Moro insurgents last year. Kato’s forces attacked the army in August, prompting an offensive that killed more than 50 fighters in the 200-strong rebel faction.
Abu Misri Mammah, a spokesman for Kato’s forces, said his group does not recognise the peace accord.
“That’s a surrender,” he said. “We won’t waver from our armed struggle and continue to aspire for a separate Muslim homeland that won’t be a creation of politicians.”
The new Muslim region is to include an existing autonomous territory made of five of the country’s poorest and most violent provinces. The Moro rebels earlier dropped a demand for a separate Muslim state and renounced terrorism.
Mr Iqbal has said his group would not lay down its weapons until a final peace accord is concluded. He said the insurgents could form a political party and run in democratic elections to get a chance at leading the autonomous region.