MANILA (PHILIPPINES) (TIP): A group of Western and Asian countries said Thursday that recent setbacks should not derail efforts that have brought a Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines to the brink of a settlement, adding that safeguards should remain in place to prevent a return to fighting.
Diplomats representing the countries, including the United States and European Union, expressed support in a joint statement for continuing peace efforts, saying “it is vital that there is no return to violence.”
Yearslong peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the south, led to the signing of a new Muslim autonomy deal last year.
A police anti-terror assault in January, however, spun out of control and led to the killings of 44 police commandos in clashes that entangled some of the Moro rebels. That sparked public outrage and prompted lawmakers to scrutinize and water down the autonomy bill, delaying its passage and sparking fears of renewed hostilities.
The insurrection in the south, homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic country, has left more than 120,000 combatants and civilians dead and held back progress in the resource-rich but poverty-stricken area.
“The long and difficult history of this troubled region can and should move to a more positive future agenda,” said the statement, which was signed by at least 21 ambassadors and senior diplomats in Manila.
“For the country as a whole, it is essential that setbacks are overcome and people of vision and faith come together to ensure that the momentum for peace continues,” the diplomats said. “We call on all concerned to remain engaged in the peace process.”
The rebels have said that changes that dilute the proposed autonomy law are unacceptable. They appealed to lawmakers to pass legislation that would help end the decades-old rebellion.
Rebel chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal Front has said delays in the passage of the autonomy bill have made the insurgents anxious, but he played down fears that new violence would erupt.
Under the Malaysian-brokered peace agreement, the rebels dropped their separatist bid in exchange for a more powerful and better-funded Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro. It is to be created with a bill drafted by a rebel-government commission and submitted to Congress.