Philippines seeks peace with Muslim self-rule vote

Security forces check identification at a checkpoint in Cotabato on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 20, 2019, a day before a vote on giving the nation's Muslim minority greater control over the region. (AFP / Noel Celis)
Updated 22 January 2019
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Philippines seeks peace with Muslim self-rule vote

  • Roughly 2.8 million voters will be watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, amid fears rival insurgent groups could use violence to try to disrupt the poll
  • Muslims have long been battling for independence or autonomy on Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland

COTABATO, Philippines: A decades-long push to halt the violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives in the southern Philippines culminates Monday with a vote on giving the nation’s Muslim minority greater control over the region.
The poll is the final step in a peace deal with the Catholic-majority country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been a key force in a separatist insurgency that has raged since the 1970s.
Core areas of the proposed Bangasmoro region, located on the southern island of Mindanao, are expected to vote overwhelmingly to join it.
“I’m tired of the violence because my father is one of the victims,” said 22-year-old Jembrah Abas, adding he was slain by unidentified attackers after advocating for peace.
The election “is on the 20th anniversary of his death. I’m so sick of the violence,” she told AFP.
Roughly 2.8 million voters will be watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, amid fears rival insurgent groups could use violence to try to disrupt the poll.
The peace process began in the 1990s and does not include hard-line militant factions, including those aligned with the Daesh group, which are also active in the southern Philippines.
“Their motive is to sow terror,” Philippine national police chief Oscar Albayalde said, referring to the rival groups. “They don’t really have any other cause.”
The government and MILF hope that a new, stable Bangasmoro will attract investment to a region where brutal poverty and perennial bloodshed has fueled recruitment by radical groups.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who also hails from Mindanao, has long backed the creation of an autonomous region for the island’s Muslims.
Under the terms of the law which lays out the region’s powers, Bangasmoro will get $950 million in development funds over the next 10 years, as well as chunk of the tax revenue generated within its borders.
The national government will keep control over the police, though the leadership of the autonomous area will be closely involved in security matters.
Final results are expected to be released within four days of the voting, with an approval triggering the demobilization of a third of MILF’s fighters, which it says number 30,000.
Muslim rebels have long been battling for independence or autonomy on Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland dating back to when Arab traders arrived there in the 13th century.
In fact, the new entity would enlarge and replace a similar autonomous zone in the same part of the southern Philippines, which struggled to complete development projects and was plagued by violence.
The proposed region includes the city of Marawi, which was seized by jihadists flying the black flag of IS in 2017 and who were only dislodged by a five-month battle that flattened swathes of the town.
Experts say the devolution of powers to the region is one of the best opportunities in recent memory to bring down the persistently high levels of lawlessness in the Philippines’ south.
However, corruption and mismanagement are perennial problems across the nation of 105 million, and doubts remain over whether resources promised for development would find their way to Bangasmoro.
Experts also said not all groups would support the change.
“In the short term, there are a number of groups and politicians that are going to lose out,” Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy, told AFP.
“So there are significant short term risks.”


N.Korea’s Kim to Putin: US acted in ‘bad faith’ at Hanoi talks

Updated 14 min 5 sec ago
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N.Korea’s Kim to Putin: US acted in ‘bad faith’ at Hanoi talks

  • At Hanoi, Pyongyang demanded immediate relief from US sanctions, but the two sides disagreed over what the North was prepared to give up in return
  • Russia has already called for the sanctions to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyongyang evade some of the measures
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia: At his first summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused the United States of acting in “bad faith” at their most recent talks, state media in Pyongyang said Friday.
Kim and Putin met Thursday in the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok, for their first summit — squarely aimed at countering US influence as Kim faces off with Donald Trump over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Putin was keen to put Moscow forward as a player in a new global flashpoint — and it appears Kim was eager to take him up on the idea, during talks described by KCNA as “unreserved and friendly.”
The two leaders greeted each other warmly, shaking hands and sharing smiles, at the start of meetings on an island off Vladivostok that lasted nearly five hours.
Putin, known for delaying meetings with international guests, was waiting for Kim when he emerged from his limousine.
During the talks, Kim said “the situation on the Korean peninsula and the region is now at a standstill and has reached a critical point,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
He warned that the situation “may return to its original state as the US took a unilateral attitude in bad faith at the recent second DPRK-US summit talks,” the agency added.
“Peace and security on the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the US future attitude, and the DPRK will gird itself for every possible situation,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
The Kim-Trump summit broke down in late February without a deal on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
At those talks, cash-strapped Pyongyang demanded immediate relief from sanctions, but the two sides disagreed over what the North was prepared to give up in return.
Russia has already called for the sanctions to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyongyang evade some of the measures — accusations Moscow denies.
Just a week ago, Pyongyang demanded the removal of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from the stalled nuclear talks, accusing him of derailing the process.
On Thursday, Putin emerged from the meeting saying that like Washington, Moscow supports efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and prevent nuclear conflicts.
But he also insisted that the North needed “guarantees of its security, the preservation of its sovereignty.”
“We need to... return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world,” Putin said.


Kim said he hoped to usher in a “new heyday” in ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.
Both men said they were looking to strengthen ties that date back to the Soviet Union’s support for the founder of North Korea, Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung.
The two shared a lunch that included borscht, crab salad and venison dumplings, Russian news agency TASS reported.
The North Korean leader invited Putin to visit North Korea “at a convenient time” and the invitation was “readily accepted,” KCNA said.
Kim, who arrived in Vladivostok aboard his armored train, was expected to stay until Friday for cultural events that Russian media have reported will include a ballet and a visit to the city’s aquarium.


The meeting was Kim’s first with another head of state since returning from his Hanoi summit with Trump.
It followed repeated invitations from Putin after Kim embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures last year.
Since March 2018, the North Korean leader has held four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, two with Trump and one with Vietnam’s president.
Putin told reporters that he would fill in Washington on the results of the talks.
“There are no secrets here, no conspiracies... Chairman Kim himself asked us to inform the American side of our position,” said Putin.
There were no concrete announcements or agreements in Vladivostok, but analysts said Thursday’s meeting was valuable to both sides.
“For North Korea, it’s all about securing another exit. China talks about sanctions relief but it doesn’t really put it into action,” said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“For Russia, North Korea is elevating it back to one of the direct parties, on the same footing as China.”


Among the issues that were likely discussed was the fate of some 10,000 North Korean laborers working in Russia and due to leave by the end of this year under sanctions.
Labour is one of North Korea’s key exports and sources of cash. Pyongyang has reportedly asked Russia to continue to employ its workers after the deadline.
Soon after his first election as Russian president, Putin sought to normalize relations with Pyongyang and met Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s father and predecessor — three times, including a 2002 meeting also held in Vladivostok.
China has since cemented its role as the isolated North’s most important ally, its largest trading partner and crucial fuel supplier, and analysts say Kim could be looking to balance Beijing’s influence.
The last meeting between the leaders of Russia and North Korea came in 2011, when Kim Jong Il told then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he was prepared to renounce nuclear testing.
His son has since overseen by far the country’s most powerful blast to date, and launch of missiles which Pyongyang says are capable of reaching the entire US mainland.
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