December 8, 2015 / 10:41 AM / 2 years ago

Philippines' Aquino urges lawmakers to pass Muslim autonomy measure

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday urged Congress to pass a bill giving greater autonomy to a Muslim minority in the country’s south, ending a 45-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

Philippine's President Benigno Aquino delivers a speech during the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The appeal, to about 150 members of the lower house of Congress just five days ahead of the end of the 2015 session, is a test of Aquino’s influence six months before the election of his successor.

“The president urged the members of Congress to rise to the challenge of being able to change the narrative, referring to the cycle of violence and poverty that has stalled peace and progress in Mindanao,” his communications secretary, Herminio Coloma, said.

Enacting the law “has become more imperative in view of the increased threats posed by global terrorism and radicalization,” Coloma said in a statement.

Congressman Neptali Gonzales, an ally of Aquino, said the next administration might no longer have the same credibility to push for the peace process with the largest Muslim rebel group in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.

Some administration officials fear there could be violence in the south, particularly during elections next May, if the Muslim autonomy measure does not pass in Congress.

In March 2014, Aquino’s government signed a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) promising to expand an existing Muslim autonomous region, with vast political and economic powers in exchange for the dismantling of a guerrilla army and the surrender of weapons.

Aquino has been struggling to pass the law creating a new autonomous region for Muslims after 44 police commandos were killed by Muslim rebels in a botched raid to capture two Islamist militants in the south in January.

Both rebels, among them Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, a top Malaysian bomb-maker who had a $5 million bounty from the U.S. government, were killed.

In 2013, Aquino won an unprecedented majority in both houses in Congress, making it easy for him to push through his priority bills, but with only seven months left in office, even some of his allies doubt if the Muslim autonomy law will be passed.

When the election season starts next month, after the Christmas holidays, lawmakers will no longer have the appetite to work. Some of Aquino’s allies have started to switch loyalties, adding to the pressure to pass the law.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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