Aquino described the deal as a "framework agreement". The agreement would provide the guidelines for establishing a new autonomous region in the south. The agreement follows marathon talks in Malaysia which hosted the talks. Officials expect the agreement will be signed in a few days in Manila, the capital.
The agreement not only sets out the general principles governing major issues, but also the extent of the powers of the new autonomous region, sharing of revenues, and borders of the region. A final deal could be reached by 2016 if all goes well, officials claim. This would be at the end of Aquino' s six year term. Aquino
"This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao. This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity."
Mindanao is the large island that makes up most of the southern part of the Philippines. The MILF separatists have been operating in part of the island where there is a Muslim majority. Aquino cautioned that much work remains to be done. Tentative deals have been reached before only to unravel. Aquino noted that there are still details that both sides must thrash out.
There have been 15 years of negotiation with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The group is estimated to consist of 11,000 rebels. More than 120,000 people are estimated to have died in the region during the conflict with the rebels. There are more radical separatist movements as well, some of which are said to be associated with Al Qaeda.
The Abu Sayyaf
group operates in the Basilan and Zamboanga peninsula. They are regarded as terrorist organization by the U.S. and U.S. forces have aided the Philippine military in hunting down these militants.
The new autonomous area will be called the Bangsamoro. The region will replace the existing autonomous area that was created back in 1989. Aquino called the earlier region a failed experiment.
The agreement will establish a a 15 member "Transition Commission" that will flesh out the details of the deal and also draft a law that would create the new autonomous region. This should be done within approximately two years. The rebels will also gradually disarm their fighting units but a timetable for this has yet to be worked out.
The preliminary agreement will be posted on the Philippine government website so that the public can examine it. Plans are to sign it soon in Manila with President Aquino, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razik and Moro rebel leader Al Haj Ibrahim all being present.
Adviser to the talks, Teresita Deles, said that it had been a long journey, but that the preliminary agreement was an important milestone in the search for peace. She said the agreement provided a clear map towards an eventual political settlement.
The new region will be among the poorest areas in the Philippines. About 4 million people live in the area, which covers five provinces, with two cities, 113 towns, and thousands of villages. The rebels dropped their demands for a separate state and also renounced violence. There may still be some rebel groups that will continue armed struggle however, particularly the Abu Sayyaf group Another group broke off from the main MILF group last year and is opposed to talks.
Optimism is tempered by memory of past failures. In 2008 an agreement to be signed was scuttled when opponents took it to the Supreme Court which declared it unconstitutional. It remains to be seen if this new agreement will also fail, but for now there is guarded optimism that peace may be possible.
The Philippine government has also faced an insurrection by the New People's Army
(NPA) in numerous rural parts of the Philippines for over four decades. This Maoist group was formed in 1969 and is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The group is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. However, in 2011 the government of the Philippines delisted the NPA as a terrorist organization and resumed preliminary peace talks with the CPP.