SEEDS OF THE FIGHTING:
Muslims in Mindanao first took up arms decades ago to defend what they see as their traditional homeland under threat by Christians. Tens of thousands have died in ethnic clashes and massacres that sowed bad blood for generations.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S., Australia and other governments have looked at the southern third of the Philippines—Mindanao Island and neighboring provinces—as a second Afghanistan, a place where militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and Southeast Asia fled in order to escape crackdowns at home. They sought refuge with Muslim rebels and set up training grounds in their strongholds.
For the rest of the Philippines, Mindanao conjures a place where warlords rule, ransom kidnappings are common and terrorists bomb churches and ambush travelers.
RECOVERING FROM A FAILED DEAL:
A deal granting autonomy to five Muslim provinces was signed in 1996 and implemented on paper years later, but it changed little in the poverty- and violence-stricken region. Elections were rigged, corruption rife, and political bosses with private armies ruled the day. Disgruntled guerrillas carried on with bombings and attacks under the banner of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
A fresh autonomy proposal from then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo flopped in 2008. It was criticized for promising too much too soon and without public scrutiny.
When President Benigno Aquino III was elected in 2010, he agreed to meet with the Moro rebel chief, Al Haj Murad—something Arroyo did not do. The men met at the Tokyo airport, concluded that they could work together and set in motion a series of meetings in neighboring Malaysia, which has been facilitating the talks since 1997.
The talks this time involved the so-called International Contact Group of representatives from the U.S., Europe and Muslim nations who acted as witnesses, observers and advisers. Negotiations under Aquino were initially kept under wraps but now are open to public input.
High public trust in Aquino gave him the backing he needed to carry on with the peace talks, which he hopes to conclude by 2016, when his single six-year term ends.
After 32 rounds of calibrated negotiations, the outline of a deal came clear: a new autonomous region will take shape in the south, with Moro rebels giving up their quest for independence in exchange for broad powers to govern themselves. The central government will maintain control over defense and foreign affairs, while the Moros—their aging leaders worn down by decades of fighting—will exercise substantial powers locally, including the justice system and tax collection. Sharia law will be enforced but will apply only to Muslims.
Unlike the previous peace deal, this one calls for rebels to disarm.
Many tricky details remain. That includes the exact extent of the Moro territory. Although broadly based on an existing autonomous region, the rebels want it expanded. Other potential stumbling blocks are how much tax revenue the locals will have to give the central government, and how and when the 11,000-strong rebel force will be disbanded.
THE ABU SAYYAF:
Al-Qaida-linked militants from the brutal Abu Sayyaf group, which gained notoriety with kidnappings and beheadings of foreign tourists, including Americans, are not part of any peace deal. Abu Sayyaf and the Moro rebels cross paths in several parts of the Philippines. The hope is that a broader peace agreement with the Moro rebels will isolate the extremists and deprive them of sanctuaries and logistical support.
About 600 U.S. troops will continue to be based in the southern Philippines, training Filipino forces, exchanging intelligence and providing equipment. Mostly aimed at the Abu Sayyaf and their allies from the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah network, the U.S. forces are trying to ensure that the fragile region does not become a magnet for militants, which it may if peace deal falters.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.
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