MANILA: The Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group have agreed on a crucial revenue-sharing accord for a proposed Muslim autonomous region, but a breakaway rebel faction resumed attacks in the south to undermine peace talks, officials said Sunday.
Government negotiators and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front said in a joint statement that they signed the wealth-sharing agreement late Saturday in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which has been brokering the yearslong talks. The negotiations aim to peacefully settle one of Southeast Asia’s longest-running Muslim insurgencies, which has left more than 120,000 people dead and held back progress in resource-rich but appallingly poor southern Philippine regions since the 1970s.
Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said negotiations between her panel and the rebels were so tough that the talks had to be extended by two days before they managed to sign before midnight Saturday an accord on how the government and a more powerful Muslim autonomous region to be established in the south would divide revenues from taxation, fuel and mining.
The accord was the second of four key pacts that needed to be concluded under a peace deal envisioned to grant a larger autonomy to minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines. The talks will next tackle the remaining but expectedly difficult issues of power-sharing and a program to disarm the rebels and possibly integrate them into a regional police force for the autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro.
“Both parties’ persistence and goodwill bore fruit,” Coronel-Ferrer said.
Rebel vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar said his group accepted the revenue-sharing accord even though it was not fully satisfied with the outcome. While the proposed five-province autonomous region’s revenue shares appear significant, many of its natural resources and potential gas deposits remain untapped, partly due to the long-raging insurgency.
Under the new wealth-sharing accord, 25 percent of national government taxes and fees collected in the Muslim autonomous region would go to the Manila-based central government, while the rest would be given to the regional government. The same formula would apply to income derived from the exploration, development and use of metallic minerals, according to Coronel-Ferrer.
Both sides would equally share potential income from petroleum, natural gas, coal and uranium deposits.
The Muslim autonomous region would take full control of income from non-metallic resources such as sand, gravel and quarries, as well as revenues from corporations, financial institutions and freeports owned or controlled by the regional government. The government would also provide a special development fund to the Muslim region.
Amid the progress in the talks, a breakaway rebel group opposed to the peace negotiations attacked a truckload of army troops, sparking a clash that killed two soldiers and five insurgents Saturday near the insurgents’ strongholds in southern Maguindanao province, regional military spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
Armed guerrillas from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters also attempted to take over a long stretch of a major Maguindanao highway, which they blocked with a bomb-ridden motorcycle taxi, touching off sporadic overnight gunbattles.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the fighting and army troops managed to secure the highway enough to open it to public motorists, Hermoso said.
The renegade guerrillas broke off from the main rebel front two years ago. The faction, led by Ameril Umbra Kato, has rejected the peace talks, saying the negotiations would not bring to reality its aspirations for a separate Muslim homeland.
Two weeks ago, more than 100 armed fighters from Kato’s group fired on government troops and police who were trying to capture their commanders, touching off sporadic clashes that eventually forced the gunmen from two hilly Maguindanao community strongholds. Five soldiers were killed and the military reported up to 80 rebels were slain in the clashes, citing reports from village officials and witnesses.