Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) shakes hands with Al-Hajj Murad (L), chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), at Malacanang Palace in Manila, as MILF vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar (R) looks on.

A new law that will govern the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines was submitted as a bill to the government on Monday (July 17) for approval by Congress.

President Rodrigo Duterte received the draft “Bangsamoro Basic Law” (BBL), crafted by a 21-member commission that he appointed, saying he will “support and husband” the proposed measure until it passes Congress, The Philippine Star reported.

For more than four decades, Islamist groups have been engaged in an insurgency for an independent province in the Mindanao island group in the south of the country.

According to the newspaper, Duterte said the turnover of the proposed BBL “is a significant step forward in our quest to end centuries of hatred, mistrust and injustice that cost and affected the lives of millions of Filipinos”.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, appealed to Filipinos to support the passage of the revised draft law, reports UCAN.

Mohagher Iqbal, head of the rebel group’s peace deal implementation panel, emphasised the need for public awareness to pass the new bill.

Irene Santiago, head of the government’s panel, agreed, saying the absence of a “strong peace constituency” caused the failure of the earlier version.

“If the public supports the [proposed law], then politicians will also be for [it],” said Santiago.

But Both Santiago and Iqbal promised that a new autonomous Muslim region would not result in the secession of the Moro people from the Philippines.

“The [proposed law] is the antidote to the dismemberment of the country,” said Iqbal.

‘Antidote’ to violent extremism

An earlier version was crafted after the signing of a peace deal between the government and the rebels in 2014. Congress rejected it following a public outcry over the deaths of 44 policemen during a botched anti-terrorist operation in MILF territory.

Part of that Comprehensive Peace Agreement was the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, named after its “Moro”, or Muslim, population.

At the presentation of the new draft bill, Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF vice chairman, said the proposed bill was “the best antidote to violent extremism”.

His comments come against the backdrop of the continued siege of Marawi , a city in the southern Philippines, where gunmen affiliated to the Islamic State group (IS) have been battling government troops since 23 May. Jaafar says that the siege happened as a result of frustration with the peace process.

According to the Philippine Star, “the MILF and the government panel had warned in 2015, when debates on the first BBL were going on, that government failure to deliver on the promises […] could lead to an increase in extremism because of some sectors that might grow impatient with the peace process”. World Watch Monitor reported a Mindanao Catholic Archbishop giving the same warning.

Duterte hopes to push the new bill through Congress before the end of this year, with a referendum among the Bangsamoro people to follow sometime between January and May 2018.

Extremism on the rise

As World Watch Monitor reported in April, Islamic extremism has been on the rise in the southern Philippines, and several more extreme Islamist groups than the MILF have been engaged in the insurgency for an independent province in Mindanao.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front armed forces on the lookout for Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters in Midsayap, Cotabato, on 19 April 2016, in Maguindanao Province. For more than 40 years, the southern region of Mindanao has been a battleground for numerous Islamic secessionist armies and terror groups.

Some of them pledged allegiance to IS, while one of their leaders – Sheik Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini from the Abu Sayyaf militia – was appointed IS’s leader in the Philippines, with the aim of establishing a satellite of its “caliphate”. Abu Sayyaf fighters have joined the Maute terrorist group fighting government troops in Marawi and it is believed they are supported by IS.

Then there is also the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by Nur Misuari, who believes that his group, and not the MILF, has the authority to deal with the government on the Bangsamoro issue, writes Raul J. Palabrica for the Inquirer. The group has been seeking independence for decades, hoping to create an independent Islamic state.

In July 2013 the MNLF declared a breakaway Bangsamoro republic on the main island of Mindanao, but this led to major fighting in the city of Zamboanga, as government forces eventually retook control in September 2013.

“We want to establish our own Bangsamoro government, not an autonomous government but we want an independent Mindanao as a Bangsamoro nation,” an MNLF spokesman said at the time.

Another smaller insurgent group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), is also fighting for an independent state in Mindanao. In June, the BIFF briefly occupied a school and destroyed the inside of a chapel in a town 200km from Marawi.

Political objectives

Meanwhile the MILF, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, has been trying to assist the government in its efforts to rescue civilians from the fighting in Marawi.

Unlike IS, the MILF has clear political, rather than ideological, objectives. It says violent extremism “has no basis whatsoever in any of the teachings of Islam”.

Earlier this month the group backed a fatwa against violent extremism issued by a senior Islamic religious leader in Mindanao.

President Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear that he is determined to crack down on IS’s presence in the country, but he has also admitted that he fears some of his cousins might have joined IS.