Manila, Muslim rebels begin drafting law that may end conflict

MANILA Wed Apr 3, 2013 6:40am EDT

Mohagher Iqbal (L), Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief peace negotiator and head of the 15-member transition commission, answers media queries after the ceremonial first meeting of the Transition Commission at a hotel in Quezon City Metro Manila April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

Mohagher Iqbal (L), Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief peace negotiator and head of the 15-member transition commission, answers media queries after the ceremonial first meeting of the Transition Commission at a hotel in Quezon City Metro Manila April 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo

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MANILA (Reuters) - Government representatives and the Philippines' largest Muslim separatist group began drafting legislation on Wednesday to end 40 years of conflict and set up an autonomous structure to run the poor, but resource-rich, south.

The 15-member Transition Commission has until next year to devise a framework for Bangsamoro, the Muslim-dominated region made up of five provinces and gripped for decades by guerrilla violence.

But its real work can only begin once parallel talks by "peace panels", due to start in Malaysia next week, are over.

Those talks will put the finishing touches on four annexes to a peace deal - including disarmament issues - signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in October.

"We shall not work against each other but instead work with each other to address the Moro problem," Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator and head of the commission, told a news conference in a Manila hotel. Moro is a term for Muslims in the Philippines.

The rebels, he said, were "taking a giant leap of faith" in the political process despite uncertainty, as President Benigno Aquino is to step down in 2016.

"We are embarking on a gradual and calculated shift in our struggle from the barrels of the Kalashnikov into the mighty strokes of the pen," he said.

Since 2001, Malaysia has hosted peace negotiations between the government and the MILF to end a rebellion that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

Two previous laws set up autonomous governments for Muslims in the south of the mainly Catholic state, but the separatist problem remained unresolved as peace deals were not implemented.

Even Aquino's administration has criticized the current autonomous government as a "failed experiment", citing rampant corruption, violence and widespread poverty.

The new autonomous region is to have a larger territory, expanded jurisdiction and greater powers to generate taxes.

Iqbal said the commission would send draft legislation to Congress in order to have new institutions in place by June 2015. But he said "political landmines" could lie ahead, including attempts by the legislature to alter the proposals.

Iqbal avoided discussion of Sabah, Malaysia's eastern state on Borneo island, where violence erupted last month when 200 Filipinos launched a bid to assert property claims dating from the 19th century. Sabah, he said, was "a bilateral issue between Malaysia and the Philippines".

But the new administration's remit will extend beyond the main southern island of Mindanao to other areas, including Sulu, the island chain where the Sabah expedition was based.

Aquino promised to grant Muslims real autonomy after he met secretly with MILF leader al haj Ebrahim Murad in Tokyo in August 2011, restoring rebels' trust that the government was committed to finding a negotiated settlement.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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