June 16, 2015 / 6:36 AM / 2 years ago

Philippine leader tries to resuscitate peace deal with Muslim rebels

SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino attempted to revive a stalled peace process with Muslim insurgents on Tuesday, calling on lawmakers to grant autonomy for the predominantly Christian nation’s restive southern region before time runs out.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino speaks during a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo June 5, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) handed in a token 75 weapons at a ceremony on Tuesday, where Aquino attempted to push forward his autonomy proposal for the region, known as Bangsamoro.

The MILF, the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, agreed in March last year to disband its guerrilla force and surrender 15,000 weapons in exchange for control of their economy, culture and politics.

Work on the so-called Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) ground to a halt soon after fighting on the island of Mindanao in January killed 44 policemen and 18 rebels. The killing of the police commandos became Aquino’s greatest political crisis, with calls for him to resign.

Aquino is trying to restart the process before he leaves office in June 2016.

“Our Moro brothers and sisters made a commitment, and before us is the concrete proof of their sincerity,” Aquino said in a speech at the “decommissioning ceremony” on Mindanao.

The weapons were handed over to a group of independent monitors, with the government in exchange granting about 25,000 pesos ($555) each to 145 former combatants to begin a new life as farmers.

The 45-year conflict has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the resource-rich southern region.

Al-haj Murad Ebrahim, leader of the 11,000-member rebel group, said the weapons handover was not a sign of weakness.

“We begin the long walk towards transformation, not surrender,” Murad said.

The rebels fear that the Philippines Congress, which suspended work on the BBL after the January killings, will try to dilute Aquino’s proposed law.

One political analyst saw the ceremony as nothing more than propaganda in an attempt to convince lawmakers and Filipinos to support it. A recent survey showed only 23 percent of the population support the BBL.

“Aquino wants to rally support for the BBL, but he is already a lame duck,” said Earl Parreno of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms. “Lawmakers would not be willing to risk their re-election to give him his legacy.”

($1 = 45.1400 Philippine pesos)

Writing By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Paul Tait

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