Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign by July a law that would create an expanded Muslim autonomous region in the south, four years after the government and the largest Muslim rebel group approved a peace deal, officials said Tuesday.
Senate and House leaders likely will pass their own versions of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) before Congress adjourns for a break next week, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said.
“The commitment is for both Houses to pass it and to reconcile whatever versions they may have, so that it can be enacted into law at the soonest time possible,” Roque told reporters, according to transcripts released by the presidential palace.
“Now of course, we would like to see the BBL enacted before Congress goes into a recess in June. But the promise is that they would do everything that is humanly possible to pass the BBL,” he said.
Duterte met with leaders of both houses Monday and has certified the separate bills urgent, which means congressional leaders would have to work overtime to iron out their differences, according to Roque.
“After much deliberation, the president has decided to make the House and Senate versions of the BBL as urgent and a copy of it is on its way to both Houses of Congress,” Roque said. “Once both chambers have reconciled and finalized the version, the president will sign the Bangsamoro Basic Law.”
House Majority Leader Rudy Fariñas said both the Senate and House have a week to pass a consolidated version. A bicameral conference committee would then meet during the congressional break to resolve the differences on the bill in time for July 23, when Duterte is expected to give his annual State of the Nation Address.
The BBL outlines the basic structure of a proposed autonomy in the mineral-rich but strife-torn southern island of Mindanao. It was the product of a 2014 peace agreement signed by the government of then-President Benigno Aquino III and the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had also agreed to disarm in phases.
But the proposed law never passed through the congress dominated largely by Christians who are fearful that giving the MILF autonomy and power could lead to trouble.
A clash between MILF guerrillas and members of a police commando unit in January 2015 when 44 officers were killed as they were hunting down a wanted Malaysian terrorist bolstered apprehension among lawmakers.
But Duterte has a super majority in Congress and he promised MILF leader Murad Ibrahim in March that the legislation would be passed. He vowed to exercise his “residual powers through administrative directives” to fulfil the autonomy promise if the BBL failed to sail through legislation.
The MILF recently gained the government’s trust, helping the army go after pro-Islamic State groups in remote Mindanao areas. This has, however, been offset by a clash last week that left nine MILF combatants dead in the government’s drug war that has reached the southern regions, security analysts said.
Duterte portrays himself as a friend of minorities
Duterte, who hails from the south, has long styled himself as a friend of minority groups. Months after winning in 2016, he freed Nur Misuari, leader of the former secessionist group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The MILF split from Misuari’s MNLF in 1978 over differences in beliefs. Misuari signed a peace pact with the government in 1996, settling for creation of an autonomous region where the former leader later became governor.
But despite millions of dollars poured into that region, it remained mired in poverty and failed to uplift the lives of Muslims. Aquino had called the government’s deal with the MNLF a “failed experiment” and, instead, focused on wooing the MILF to the peace table.
Fearing that he was being pushed to the sidelines, Misuari’s MNLF faction laid siege to the southern city of Zamboanga in 2013 for two weeks, leaving large swathes of the largely Christian business center in ruins. More than 200 people were killed in the fighting.
Misuari hid for three years, until the government dropped charges of rebellion against the fugitive months after Duterte became president.
On Tuesday, a regional trial court in Manila ordered the release of 96 of the 200 members of the Misuari’s MNLF who were detained on rebellion charges. The majority of those freed were flown to an air force base in Zamboanga while the rest were taken to the rebel strongholds of Basilan and Jolo islands.
“We were saddened by the release of the MNLF members, but we will continue to fight for justice despite the recent order,” city mayor Maria Isabel Climaco-Salazar told reporters. “They were freed despite our efforts before the Supreme Court with prayer for a temporary restraining order, stopping the release of the accused MNLF members.”
She said the men were apparently freed after the government lessened its charge from rebellion to illegal assembly, which is punishable by a short prison sentence that the men had served.
“I am still positively hoping that justice will be served to the victims of the Zamboanga siege and the remaining MNLF members accused shall be held accountable for the crimes committed,” Climaco-Salazar said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.