The historic pact paves the way for the establishment of a new Muslim Homeland, or 'Bangsamoro,' that will enlarge and replace the autonomous Muslim region that exists today in western Mindanao and the nearby islands.
It also moves the Philippines a step closer to ending a conflict that has raged on for four decades and claimed around 120,000 lives, as Muslim separatists – from both the MILF and other armed groups – battled the central government of the predominantly Christian country.
The signing of the final chapter marks the end of formal negotiations, chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said–last week. But, she noted, 'It also marks the beginning of the bigger challenge ahead, which is the challenge of implementation.'
So what happens now?
The deal signed on Jan. 25 paves the way for the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, or CAB, which would allow MILF leaders to run an autonomous government in the resource-rich island of Mindanao in return for–decommissioning their–weapons.
The signing of the CAB is seen as a formality: President Benigno Aquino III and MILF leaders should sign the document in Manila within a matter of weeks.
The next step is for the Philippine Congress to pass new legislation, referred to as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, that would–make the Bangsamoro a formal part of the Philippine state. While the Bangsamoro government will have authority over most aspects of the region's affairs,–Manila will still control defense, foreign affairs and some trade policy. Mr. Aquino has urged Congress to pass the law quickly, and its approval is expected within the first half of this year.
Once the Bangsamoro Basic Law is in place, people in western Mindanao and the nearby islands–will be asked to vote to approve it. The vote is expected to take place in the first half of 2015. If the law passes, the Bangsamoro should take effect by mid-2016, before Mr. Aquino's term ends in June of that year.
What will become of the MILF's army?
The rebel group has around 11,000 fighters who are based in six main camps on Mindanao. The MILF's leadership has accepted that its military should disarm once the CAB has been formally signed. An independent decommissioning body under foreign leadership will be established to help determine, and then oversee, the decommissioning process.
Does this mean fighting will end in Mindanao?
The MILF is by far the biggest armed group in Muslim Mindanao – but there are others that have continued to wage war against the government, slowing development in the resource-rich region. The announcement of the peace agreement, for example, was marred this week by heavy fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or AFP, and a group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, or BIFF, a group that split off from the MILF and has rejected the ongoing peace process.
On Jan. 30, an AFP spokesman confirmed that the clashes had killed one soldier and 40 BIFF fighters. He estimated that some 300 BIFF fighters were still at large. Several civilians have also been killed, and nearly 10,000 people have been displaced by the recent violence. Local leaders insist that the BIFF lacks support and will not succeed in derailing the peace process.
Are there any other relevant armed groups?
The MILF itself is a splinter group of an older organization, the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF. The MNLF has been eclipsed by the MILF in recent years but remains a force.
In September, 400 MNLF fighters attacked Zamboanga City in western Mindanao in a dramatic display of their opposition to the government's peace deal with the MILF. The fighting killed dozens of civilians and destroyed thousands of homes. More than 60,000 people in Zamboanga remain displaced.
Local authorities are still seeking to arrest MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari, who has been in hiding since the September violence.
The Zamboanga operation appears to have damaged his legitimacy, but the MNLF still claims around 70,000 members across Mindanao, and both the Philippine government and the new Bangsamoro leaders will have to find a way to bring them into the peace process if they are to guarantee a lasting settlement.
Two other armed groups also operate in the region. The Communist New People's Army, or NPA, maintains a significant presence outside Mindanao's Muslim areas – and while the group currently has little relevance in Muslim Mindanao, there are concerns that it could expand into the Bangsamoro once the MILF disarms. A much smaller militant Islamic group, the Abu Sayyaf – which is regarded as a terrorist group with al Qaeda affiliations, rather than a separatist movement – also operates on the remote islands of the southern Philippines.
Is there a chance this peace deal could unravel, as previous peace deals have?
The Bangsamoro will replace the regional body that currently administers the five predominantly Muslim provinces in Mindanao, known as–the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. It was established in 1990 under an agreement with the MNLF, but not the MILF. It ultimately failed because the MILF were too important to be left on the sidelines. This time the government has reached a deal with the MILF, but not the MNLF. That's an improvement on the situation in 1990 because the MILF is the more significant of the two groups. However, the exclusion of the MNLF is undeniably a threat to the new deal's success.
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