MANILA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino called on lawmakers on Friday to pass a bill endorsing a pact aimed at ending a decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion, warning them they would otherwise start counting “body bags”.

Aquino had wanted the bill, which would give autonomy to the majority Catholic nation’s Muslim minority in the south, passed this month.

But Congress suspended debates on the proposed law in the face of public outrage over the killings of 44 police commandoes by Muslim guerillas in a botched anti-terror raid in January.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal a year ago on Friday, had said its members fired in self-defence at the commandos, who passed through a rebel camp while going after Islamic militants.

“This is the crossroads we face: we take pains to forge peace today, or we count body bags tomorrow,” Aquino said in a nationwide television address.

“Perhaps it is easy for you to push for all-out war,” he said, hitting out at critics who have condemned the peace deal with the MILF.

“But if the conflict grows, the number of Filipinos shooting at other Filipinos will grow, and it would not be out of the question that a friend or loved one be one of the people who will end up inside a body bag.” The rebellion for a separate state or self-rule has claimed nearly 120,000 lives and cost billions of dollars in economic losses, according to government estimates. Under a peace deal signed with the MILF, the 10,000-member group pledged to disarm while the Philippine government vowed to pass an autonomy law in Muslim areas of the south.

“The Bangsamoro basic law is one of the most important proposed bills of our administration. It answers the two most pressing problems of our countrymen: poverty and violence,” Aquino said on Friday.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2015

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