by Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, Jan. 26 (Xinhua) -- After on-and-off exploratory peace talks that started in 2001 under the previous administration, the government of President Benigno Aquino III has signed on Saturday the final annex of a comprehensive peace agreement with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Officials said that the normalization annex, which was signed during the 43rd round of exploratory talks held in Kuala Lumpur, will end four decades of internecine fighting between government troops and Moro rebels in the Southern Philippines.
In the deal signed Saturday, the MILF agreed to turn over their weapons to a third party jointly selected by the MILF and the government. In return, a regional police force will be created as soon in the new political entity which will be established in 2016.
In October 2012, the two sides signed the framework peace agreement and later the annexes on power-sharing, transitional arrangement and modalities, and wealth sharing.
The new entity, to be called Bangsamoro will be vested with federal-type sovereign powers. It will largely control natural resources in the southern part of the island of Mindanao with a predominantly Muslim Filipino population.
Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer welcomed the end to formal negotiations but said the bigger challenge of implementation still had to be overcome.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal expressed the hope that no obstacles "will stand in the way" in resolving the long-running conflict in the Southern Philippines.
According to the state-run Philippines News Agency, some 150, 000 Filipinos, which include combatants and innocent civilians, have died during the fighting between government troops and Moro rebels that started in the mid-l970s.
Even with Saturday's breakthrough, the Manila government will be facing a number of hurdles before peace can finally be achieved in the affected areas.
Both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, will have to pass an organic act that would serve as the legal basis for the establishment of the Bangsamoro entity to replace what is now the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which was created and provided for in the Philippine Constitution.
This was an offshoot of the peace agreement in 1996 that the government has signed with the Moro National Liberation Front ( MNLF), the first Muslim group what waged an armed rebellion in Mindanao.
The Bangsamoro Transition Commission, comprised of representatives from both the government and the MILF, wants to submit to President Aquino a proposed Bangsamoro basic law in April.
The president, in turn, will submit the bill to Congress for approval. After it is passed by Congress and signed by the president, the organic act will be submitted for approval by the people in the affected areas through a plebiscite.
Aquino said that he wants a peace deal with the MILF signed before he completes his term in June 2016. He said that he is confident that the Bangsamoro basic law will be approved by Congress.
But Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who comes from Cagayan de Oro City, a predominantly Christian city in Mindanao, has warned the government "not to overpromise" in the peace agreement.
Even before the proposed Bangsamoro organic bill has reached Congress, there are already some sectors that have expressed their intention to question the constitutionality of such a measure in the Supreme Court.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) crafted by the same MILF and the government of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that would have given almost similar powers to the MILF to govern their own Moro homeland.
Another ticklish issue to hurdle by the Aquino government is what to do with the l996 peace agreement with the MNLF headed by Nur Misuari.
Although the original MNLF has splintered into several factions, the Misuari faction has vehemently rejected the MILF-government negotiations and vowed not to honor any accord signed by the two sides.
The Misuari MNLF faction has declared its own Bangsamoro Republic in the province of Sulu, the faction's stronghold, and has staged a daring and coordinated armed "invasion" of neighboring Zamboanga City on Sept. 9 last year that resulted in hundreds of dead and injured, mostly MNLF militias but also included some government troops and innocent civilians.
The government has ordered the arrest of Misuari for allegedly giving the order to attack Zamboanga City but up to now he is still on the lam.
Aside from the Misuari group, other armed elements in Mindanao, such as the terrorist Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) led by MILF renegade commander Ombra Kato, could still create trouble in Mindanao and could nullify any gains from the government-MILF peace deal.