The Philippine government has agreed to give sweeping fiscal powers to Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao in a bid to end the country’s decades-long insurgency.
The "wealth-sharing" deal between Manila and the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was achieved on 13 July after six-days of bargaining in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, negotiators said.
The deal is seen as another step towards the creation of an autonomous entity to be governed by MILF by 2016. The next round of negotiations - to be held after Ramadan - will focus on the scope of MILF governing powers and how and when the rebel force will be disarmed.
"Together with the MILF, the Philippines recognize the importance of wealth creation to enable Bangsamoro [name of the new autonomous region] government to successfully operate and deliver to its constituents," Manila's head of the peace process Teresita Deles told IRIN. "Both of us have faith that this wealth-sharing arrangement we have created will benefit Bangsamoro.”
Under the deal, MILF will get powers to levy taxes on businesses operating in its territory, and receive grants and funding directly from donors. They will also have the power to grant tax exemptions, rebates, tax holidays and other incentives.
Crucially, MILF will get 75 percent of all earnings derived from exploiting metallic minerals in the area, while receiving half of all revenues from activities related to natural gas or oil.
While there is no data on resources in the Bangsamoro area, official statistics show Mindanao Island contains a large portion of the country's estimated US$800 billion in gold, copper and other mineral deposits.
Manila's chief negotiator in the talks, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, said the overriding consideration in achieving the deal was for economic activity to gradually take root in the south, where the four-year insurgency has left tens of thousands dead and led to mass displacements.
"The whole idea with the total package that we have come up with is to provide for sources of revenues in the hope that these resources and revenues will increase over time as peace and development prevail in the region," she said. "They can become less dependent and they can stand on their own."
Two more hurdles
She called on both sides to seize the momentum and agree on the last two remaining contentious issues - disarming MILF and defining the powers of their leaders once they begin controlling the region by 2016.
"This is where crunch time really comes for the MILF because this is the part where they will be talking about decommissioning of weapons," she said. "This is something that is not easy to give up for a group that has held on to its arms in order to pursue its cause."
It also comes at a time when other armed groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), could take advantage of the lull to cause more trouble. BIFF broke away from MILF in 2011 after saying they opposed the talks.
They have been carrying out periodic attacks ever since, including one that left eight dead before the last round of negotiations started.
MILF Vice-Chairman for Political Affairs Ghazali Jaafar said he expected tougher negotiations ahead before a final peace deal is signed, noting that the rebels would only lay down their arms if they were assured they would not be arrested or attacked by soldiers. He said there must also be "adequate protection" against other violent armed groups in the south.
"God willing, we will be able to move forward and finally give peace to the next generation of Muslims so they won't have to suffer more bloodshed," he said. "We have spent a lot of capital on these talks, so you can say we are definitely committed to ending this peacefully."
In 2008, more than 700,000 people were displaced after fighting broke out when a peace agreement, which gave MILF control over more than 700 areas in the south they considered their ancestral domain, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a project backed by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Philippines has made significant progress towards the peaceful settlement of long-standing conflicts, but has yet to put an end to displacement. In 2012, at least 178,000 people fled clashes between government forces and non-state armed groups, and clan violence affecting mainly Muslim-majority areas in Mindanao.
At least 1,200 people displaced by armed conflict, clan violence and crime remain in government-recognized camps and relocation sites, the IDMC reported in April 2013. It is estimated that nearly two million people (1,993,000) were displaced in Mindanao during 2012, with natural disasters accounting for 91 percent of all displacements.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions