New autonomous region in the Philippines will go some way to righting a historic wrong

There have been many false starts to the Bangsamoro movement but there are hopes it will end years of insurgency

COTABATO CITY, PHILIPPINES - JANUARY 18:  Bangsamoro supporters flock to the streets to show support to the Bangsamoro Organic Law ahead of the polls, on January 18, 2019 in Cotabato City, southern Philippines. Nearly three million Filipinos in region of Mindanao are voting in a plebiscite which could pave the way for lasting peace at the country's Muslim-majority southern region and place them under a substantially more autonomous regional government. Based on reports, Monday's plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law could provide a political solution to decades of fighting between Islamist separatists and the Philippine army which has left at least 120,000 people dead over years of violence. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
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Less than 48 hours after a resounding vote in favour of a new autonomous Muslim-majority region in the south of the Philippines, two bombs tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral in the city of Jolo, killing 20 people and wounding dozens more. The terrorist attack on Sunday, for which ISIS took responsibility, was thought to have been revenge for the local province of Sulu voting no in the referendum. However, the vote remains significant and represents a major milestone on the road to justice for the Bangsamoro, the mainly Muslim population named by the colonising Spanish after the Moors, who once occupied their own peninsula.

The new region could spell the end to a long-running insurgency that has cost 120,000 lives and displaced about two million people in the south of the country. Some 2.2 million voters took part in the referendum, or plebiscite, last Friday to decide whether Bangsamoro Autonomous Region should be created across part of Mindanao island. A second plebiscite will take place next month in other provinces in which a remaining 600,000 voters will make their decision about whether to join it.

Colonisation might have succeeded in converting most of the Philippines to Catholicism, but the Bangsamoro have historically always held out. One reason for them maintaining such a different sense of identity is because when, in the 1930s, the US government was considering plans for eventual independence, a group of Bangsamoro leaders asked that a completely separate state be created for them. Their wishes were ignored and after independence in 1946, Philippine governments were accused by the Bangsamoro of attempting to erase their culture by transporting in Christians from elsewhere in the country to live there. Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) went so far as to say that the policy constituted attempted genocide.

Over the decades, various forms of autonomy had been tried but they were insufficient to satisfy local aspirations or to bring to an end the separatist and often violent struggles chiefly spearheaded first by the MNLF and then by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split from the former in 1977.

There have been many false starts along the way. In 1996, for instance, then president Fidel Ramos signed a "general cessation of hostilities" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, only for his successor Joseph Estrada to declare "all-out war" on the group four years later. The latest agreement emerged from long-running talks hosted by the government of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak, leading to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government signing a historic framework agreement in 2012, followed by a "comprehensive agreement" in 2014.

In the aftermath of a deadly clash with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front the following year in which 44 Filipino policemen died, then president Benigno Aquino failed to get the necessary legislation through parliament. It was his controversial successor Rodrigo Duterte who last year managed to pass the Bangsamoro Organic Law, paving the way for the creation of the region.

As the first president from Mindanao, he has long vowed to bring peace to the area, his determination forged from personal experience as he has cousins who are members of rebel groups. For all his wild talk and his reckless approach to law enforcement, if the autonomous region brings resolution to this conflict, Mr Duterte can be proud of an achievement no other Filipino leader has managed to bring about.

The new region will have real powers. It will have a chief minister, a wali, or ceremonial head, and an 80-member parliament. It will have authority in 55 areas, including the administration of justice, health, housing, agriculture, water and trade and industry. It will retain 75 per cent of national taxes collected in the region and one twentieth of the Philippines' national budget will be reserved for the Bangsamoro government – crucial to its success, given that poverty levels are significantly higher in the region than in the rest of the country and if development does not accompany the new region's early years, the whole experiment will likely be deemed to have failed.

It is also an example of how patience and a willingness by governments to recognise that violence, while never acceptable, can spring from real maltreatment and inequality. It also shows how careful and persistent negotiations can persuade terrorists to take the path of peace. Both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its antecedent group had links to Muammar Qaddafi, who notoriously supported armed insurrections around the world. But now the region will be led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose leadership has urged Mr Misuari of the MNLF to join and support them.

Some might suggest that separating a Muslim-majority region from a country that claims to be the only Catholic one in Asia risks increasing segregation and religious polarisation in the Philippines. But with his frequent talk of his joint Christian and Muslim heritage, Mr Duterte is a good example of how many people in Mindanao manage to overcome such differences. And it is significant that Cotabato City – a religiously mixed urban centre which is planned as the capital of the new region – voted for inclusion in the new area, despite having previously resisted.

The Bangsamoro government will need the support of the neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia for intelligence-sharing and military co-operation to crack down on terrorist groups that will not support the agreement, such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. It is less than two years since the Maute group, a terrorist cell affiliated to ISIS, laid waste to the Muslim-majority city of Marawi in a five-month siege, and memories live long. But authorities in the new region will also need help providing the trade and economic improvement that will ensure the agreement's success.

It is also not certain that all the areas in which next month's vote will take place will decide to join the new region, which is due to move into a transition stage within weeks. Neither does the impending autonomy represent what the Irish nationalist Michael Collins once called "the freedom to gain freedom". It is not a step towards independence – but it will go some way to righting a historic wrong.