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Philippines close to approving Islamic autonomous region

Backed by Duterte, legislation would foster lasting peace with Muslim separatists

A lasting peace between the Philippines and its Muslim separatist groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, could combat the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia.   © AP

MANILA -- The Philippines is on track to approve an Islamic autonomous region in the country, taking a step toward ending 50 years of bloody conflict with separatist rebel groups.

Legislation creating such a region on the southern island of Mindanao had been stalled in the Philippine Congress for years. But President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown his weight behind the Bangsamoro Basic Law, saying late last month that he might resign if the measure does not pass by the end of May.

Both houses of the legislature are putting the finishing touches on the bill. Three key committees in the lower house accepted the proposal Tuesday, and the measure looks to become law by May 30, the de facto end of the legislative session.

Establishing a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would let residents of a predominantly Muslim section of western Mindanao set up an elected government of their choosing, with the power to develop natural resources and levy taxes.

The region's conflict began in 1969, when separatists organized in a rebel force that later spawned the militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A full-scale confrontation between rebels and the government erupted around 2000.

More than 100,000 people have died in the fighting over the past five decades, with the region reportedly suffering over $13 billion in economic losses. A lasting peace would help the relatively underdeveloped Mindanao catch up economically to the rest of the Philippines.

The government and rebel groups initially reached a comprehensive peace accord in 2014 under President Benigno Aquino. But violence erupted again the following year, when rebels killed 44 police officers in a firefight, and the Bangsamoro Basic Law stalled in Congress.

As a Mindanao native, Duterte has shown understanding of the Muslim residents' position and an eagerness to get the peace process back on track. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other rebels have grown more optimistic that the Basic Law will pass, though legislators who would lose power in such an autonomous region remain prepared to put up a fight.

The rising threat of terrorism makes passage all the more urgent. The Islamic State-inspired Maute group -- a radical offshoot of the Moro front -- laid siege to the city of Marawi in May 2017, eventually killing more than 1,300 people including residents, police and military personnel. Maute drew fighters not only from Mindanao but also from across Southeast Asia as those influenced by IS ideology sought to create a foothold for the extremist group in the region.

Murad Ebrahim, who leads the Moro front, warned that failure to enact the Basic Law could create despair that drives others to extremism and fuels a repeat of the bloody siege.

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