MANILA, Philippines— Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines will begin turning over their weapons as part of a peace deal even as lawmakers are still debating a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the country’s south, rebel and government peace negotiators said Thursday.
President Benigno Aquino III will be the guest of honor at the ceremonial turnover of high-powered weapons next week, chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer said. She said 145 guerrillas of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front also will be decommissioned.
Rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said rebels agreed to hand over their weapons to an independent group despite the delay in the passage of the law creating the new autonomous region.
“This is just the start of the decommissioning process, which the (rebel group) has committed to undertake as a show of its sincerity to peace building,” Ferrer said.
Under the peace accord signed in March 2014, the rebels agreed to end their armed struggle for a separate state in exchange for broader autonomy.
An existing five-province Muslim region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better-funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
The Aquino government had planned on passing the law last December, but it has met stiff opposition from legislators who claim that many of its provisions are unconstitutional. Heated debates have stalled the passage of an amended bill at the House of Representatives while the Senate continues public hearings on the proposed legislation.
Aquino said Thursday the passage of the law was “slightly behind schedule.”
“All I can do is try and convince the leaders of both chambers and their members of the importance of this particular bill,” he said.
Ferrer said 55 high-powered rifles and 20 crew-served weapons, which require more than one operator, will be turned over to the Independent Decommissioning Body.
The rebels to be decommissioned will be given 25,000 pesos ($555) in cash assistance plus a government health card. Decommissioned combatants also will be provided with livelihood assistance as part of the normalization process.
More than 120,000 people have died in separatist violence since the 1970s in Mindanao, the main southern Philippine island. It is home to most of the country’s 5 million Muslims, but Christians remain the overall majority.