An agreement to expand a Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines will have to be approved through a plebiscite, a government official said Sunday, dpa reported.
The agreement is scheduled to be signed on Tuesday by the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Amid opposition to the expansion of the existing six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), presidential peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon stressed that the agreement is only preliminary.
Esperon said the agreement on the Muslim homeland was needed to resume formal peace talks with the MILF, the largest Muslim separatist rebel group in Mindanao.
"All provisions must conform to the constitution," he said. "Any addition to the ARMM will be by plebiscite, and this plebiscite will not happen without the enabling law enacted by Congress."
Under the agreement, a plebiscite would be held in 2009 to add more than 700 villages in Mindanao to the ARMM. A new form of government would also be set up for Muslims after a final peace deal is reached.
Some Catholic politicians in Mindanao have opposed the agreement and asked the Supreme Court to stop the signing, alleging that the government was giving up sovereignty over the southern region.
The Supreme Court has asked the government to respond to the petition, but did not halt the signing.
Esperon rejected the allegations, saying, "We are not giving away sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines. It is just enabling the Bangsamoro (Muslim nation) to be in one place, in one contiguous area."
The 11,000-strong MILF has been fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao since 1978. It agreed to hold peace talks with the government about 10 years ago.