Bullit Marquez / AP

Philippines close to approving autonomous Muslim zone

Deal would give Muslims in the south power over such areas as agriculture, trade, tourism and education

The president of the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines proposed on Wednesday to give Muslims in the south the ability to run their own government under their own flag — part of a peace plan aimed at ending a four-decade rebellion responsible for 150,000 deaths.

The draft law submitted by President Benigno Aquino III to Congress fleshes out a peace deal signed in March by the country's largest Muslim insurgent group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Hopes for peace had been thrown into doubt after rebels accused the government of reneging on the pact. But intense negotiations rescued the deal, under which the rebel group agreed to disband and surrender weapons in exchange for powers over the autonomous region in the southern island of Mindanao, to be called Bangsamoro.

Bangsamoro would get its own 60-member parliament that would wield exclusive power over such areas as agriculture, trade, tourism and education. Under the proposal, Sharia, or Islamic law, would apply to Muslims in the region, but the country's justice system would continue to apply to non-Muslims.

Aquino is keen to see the deal in place before his term ends in June 2016.

"We ask Congress … to pass this bill in the soonest possible time," Aquino said. "If we are able to legislate this, we can give our Moro brothers enough time to prepare, thus enabling them to nurture the seeds of meaningful governance which were planted for the Bangsamoro."

The bill is expected to come under intense scrutiny in parliament, but it is eventually expected to pass given that both Congress and the House of Representatives are dominated by Aquino's allies. Nonetheless, the bill may face legal challenges from Christian politicians and groups, which are wary of ceding territory, power and influence to Muslims.

At least three smaller Muslim groups oppose the autonomy deal and have vowed to fight it. And it may be difficult to convince all MILF rebels to surrender their weapons.

The autonomous zone, which generally covers five provinces, would replace an existing one, seen as a dismal failure. Aquino's government also has promised to pour $389 million into the area in the form of special development funds.

The central government would retain authority over areas such as defense, foreign and monetary policy, postal service and immigration, according to the proposal.

The rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for Muslim self-rule in Mindanao in an insurrection that has killed about 150,000 combatants and civilians. The United States and other Western governments have backed the autonomy deal partly to prevent the insurgency from breeding extremists who could threaten their countries.

"This is the farthest distance we have reached in our peace journey with the MILF," presidential adviser Teresita Deles said in a statement. "Every word, line, and provision shall be subjected to the sunshine of democratic debate, where all voices will be heard, with our constitution as the guiding light."

The United Nations office in the Philippines praised the development as a "critical milestone" and "a crucial achievement in ensuring lasting peace and sustainable development in Mindanao and in the wider Philippines."

In 2008, the government and the rebels were close to signing a preliminary peace deal but Christian politicians questioned the legality of the pact, which eventually fell apart, igniting rebel attacks. Fighting resumed, killing scores of people and displacing tens of thousands of villagers.

Filipinos have grown exasperated with the fighting in the south, so some politicians are reluctant to be seen opposing the plan, said analyst Ramon Casiple.

"This isn't a partisan issue," Casiple said. "If you go around saying you'll block this, a stance the public fears would lead to war, I don't think you'll get support from the people."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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