Philippines offers autonomy to Muslim rebels

Mark Navales
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Murad Ebrahim (C), chairman of the MILF, attends a press conference at their camp in Sultan Kudarat

The Philippines has offered the country's largest Muslim insurgent group -- the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) -- the prospect of autonomy

The Philippines on Monday offered Muslim rebels waging a decades-long insurgency the prospect of autonomy, but warned they must first lay down their arms and a peace pact was likely years away.

The offer was contained in the government's proposal for peace with the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at the start of three days of talks in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

"This proposal presents the possibility of a more empowered, more workable and thus, more genuine autonomy of a Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslim) region," the government said in a statement summarising its offer.

The government did not make public all the specific details, but hinted the area could expand and improve the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which groups five Muslim provinces in the country's troubled south.

The ARMM was created in the 1980s to accommodate the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), then the country's largest Muslim rebel group from which the MILF splintered in 1978.

The MNLF signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, and its leader was made the head of the ARMM, but the government statement described it as a "failed experiment".

The proposal also includes "a system of cooperation" by which the government and the MILF could share revenue from natural resources exploited from the region.

However, for any final peace deal to take place, the government demanded that the MILF disarm and allow its fighters to be rehabilitated into society.

And while describing its proposal as "politically comprehensive", it indicated the most sensitive issues would not be addressed immediately.

"The proposal works with what is available and doable within the next few years. It does not start with contentious and divisive issues whose resolution may not be realisable as yet," the statement said.

Monday's proposal was the first by the government since the Supreme Court in 2008 outlawed another proposed autonomy deal that would have given the MILF control over 700 towns and villages in the south, including some Christian areas.

In retaliation, two senior MILF rebels launched attacks across the south that left about 400 dead and displaced 750,000.

An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict, which began in the 1970s.

At an earlier round of peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, the MILF outlined its demands, including the creation of a "sub state" and the larger share of profits from exploiting the region's resources.

MILF spokespeople were not immediately available to give their reactions to the government's latest proposal.