Philippine Rebel Warns Islamic State May Gain From Autonomy Delay

By The Associated Press 8 March 2016

KUALA LUMPUR — The head of a Philippine Muslim rebel group warned Monday that the Islamic State group could gain from frustrations in the country’s south following the failure of the Philippine Congress to pass an autonomy bill as part of a peace agreement.

Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said the militant IS group has attempted over the past year to recruit supporters in Mindanao but his group has worked to convince people that the peace pact signed with the government in 2014 was the best solution.

But he said the delay in enactment of the bill that aims to establish a more powerful and better-funded autonomous region for minority Muslims has led to frustrations that could be capitalized on by the IS and other small hardline rebel groups.

Malaysia is a facilitator in the peace talks, and Murad spoke while passing through Kuala Lumpur.

“There have been some efforts of penetration [by IS] but they have not succeeded in establishing a stronghold in Mindanao,” he said during a news conference. “But now after the non-passage of the [bill], we are quite concerned that they can capitalize on this because the [frustration] of the people in the area is now very strong.”

In Manila, Philippine presidential adviser on the peace talks Teresita Deles agreed that “frustrations of the people on the ground can lead to recruitment for radical, extremist thought and action.”

However, Philippine security forces with the help of the Moro rebels have curbed the spread of extremism and maintained peace and order through joint government and rebel ceasefire committees, Deles said.

The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberalization Front dropped its secessionist bid and settled for broader autonomy for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation in a Malaysian-brokered pact it signed with the Philippine government in 2014. The conflict has left 150,000 people dead and stunted development in the country’s poorest region.

Under the deal, a bill was submitted to Congress to create the autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro. The bill’s passage was stalled by anger over the killing last year of 44 police commandos in fighting that involved some fighters from the Moro group.

Lawmakers ended the last regular session of their term last month without passing the bill.

Murad said his group will not completely abandon its armed struggle but will not revert to violence as long as the peace process has a chance of moving forward. He said he is hopeful that the new Philippine president, to be elected later this year, will support and continue the efforts for peace.