MANILA, Philippines—A new peace deal between the Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, if effectively enforced, will remove conditions that breed radicalism and help prevent the Islamic State group from gaining local followers, officials and the insurgents said Thursday.
The government signed a pact with the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front in March that aims to establish a more powerful and better-funded autonomous region for minority Muslims in the southern Philippines and end a decades-long rebellion. The conflict has left 150,000 people dead and helped stunt development in the country’s poorest region.
The rebels are expected to start deactivating their guerrilla force later this year in a ceremony at which about 100 insurgents will symbolically hand over at least 75 high-powered firearms to an independent body of experts.
President Benigno Aquino has submitted a draft law to Congress to flesh out the agreement, which would create the new autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro. Minority Muslims are envisioned to have their own flag, a 60-member parliament, a larger budget and wield exclusive powers over such areas as agriculture, trade, tourism and education to help them turn former battlefields into prosperous communities.
The European Union’s ambassador to the Philippines, Guy Ledoux, told a forum on Islamic radicalism that while the emergence of the Islamic State group has sparked concerns elsewhere, the Philippines was facing “a time of great hope and optimism” with the peace pact’s signing.
The deal “has not only signalled an end to a long war, but also the settlement of a historic grievance that could easily fuel radicalism and lead to violent extremism and acts of terrorism if not addressed,” Ledoux said, adding that the agreement should be fully enforced.
Assistant Secretary Oscar Valenzuela of the Philippine government’s Anti-Terrorism Council said the deal had eased years of heavy fighting in the south that could potentially serve as a breeding ground of extremists.
A few years before the deal’s signing, a few hundred rebels opposed to the peace talks broke off from the main Moro rebel group and vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement rebels have continued attacks. They shot to death two army soldiers, who emerged from a Catholic church Wednesday in southern Datu Piang town.
The breakaway rebel group, along with a key faction of the violent Abu Sayyaf extremist group, has pledged support to the Islamic State group. Valenzuela said authorities were trying to confirm reports that two Filipino militants had perished in the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Abhoud Syed Lingga, a member of the rebel panel that negotiated the agreement, said long-suffering minority Muslims were closely watching to see whether the deal succeeds.
“If the moderates lose in this discourse, the radicals will take control of it,” he said.