MANILA — The biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines is set to sign a landmark peace plan with the government on Monday aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency in which 150,000 people have died.
President Benigno Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief Murad Ebrahim held a historic meeting ahead of the signing of the accord, which outlines steps towards a final resolution to the conflict by 2016.
"This is the sound of peace," a smiling Ebrahim said as he banged on a miniature version of a traditional Philippine Muslim gong that he gave to Aquino during their meeting at the presidential palace.
Ebrahim, who took up arms at the beginning of the conflict in the 1970s, became the first MILF chief to visit the presidential palace.
The two sides' chief negotiators were due to sign the roadmap for peace on Monday afternoon at the palace, witnessed by Aquino and Ebrahim.
The United Nations, the United States and other countries have welcomed the roadmap, achieved after 15 years of on-again, off-again negotiations between the MILF and various Philippine administrations, as a rare chance for peace.
Under the plan, the 12,000-strong MILF would give up its quest for an independent homeland in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao in return for significant power in a new autonomous region there.
However the MILF's leadership, the government and independent observers have warned the path towards peace remains littered with obstacles, and that Monday's signing does not guarantee an end to the conflict.
"We feel a certain kind of relief now that we have reached this stage, and trust we are on the right path," Aquino's chief peace adviser, Teresita Deles, told AFP ahead of the signing.
"We are also challenged, because we are still facing difficult tasks ahead."
Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for full independence or autonomy in Mindanao, which they consider their ancestral homeland from before Spanish Christian colonisation of the country began in the 1500s.
The estimated four to nine million Muslims are now a minority in Mindanao after years of Catholic immigration, but they remain a majority in some areas. Muslims would be a majority in the planned new autonomous region.
The conflict has left huge areas of Mindanao, a resource-rich and fertile farming region covering the southern third of the Philippines, in deep poverty.
It has also led to the proliferation of unlicensed guns and political warlords who battle over fiefdoms, while smaller but more militant Islamic separatist groups have been able to create strongholds in lawless areas.
Most of the 150,000 people estimated to have died in the conflict lost their lives in the 1970s, when an all-out war raged.
A ceasefire between the MILF and the government in place since 2003 has largely kept the peace, but outbreaks of deadly violence have occurred over the past decade.
The MILF is the biggest and most important remaining rebel group, after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.
That peace pact led to an autonomous region in Mindanao but Aquino described it last week as a "failed experiment" because of massive corruption and worsening poverty there.
The planned new autonomous region would replace the old one.
Some of the MNLF's leaders have voiced anger at seeing their powerbase dissolve, and have warned they may be prepared to take up arms again.
Fresh attacks by the MNLF or small Islamic groups who still want independence are among the potential obstacles to the peace process.
Another is potential opposition from Catholic politicians and business leaders. The nation's parliament, dominated by Catholics, will have to approve the laws of the new autonomous region.
However experts have said that Aquino, who is one of the most popular presidents in the country's history, may be able to convince the country's Catholic majority to support the plan.
The two sides have set 2016 as a deadline because that is when Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down after a serving a single six-year term.
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