Manila: President Benigno Aquino brought gifts to Filipino-Muslim rebels at the latter’s camp in the southern Philippines, where hundreds of government soldiers and rebel fighters held games, and government and rebel leaders announced the signing of a political settlement next month, after 16 years of on and off peace talks.
After arriving at noon at Camp Darapanan of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao Province, Aquino gave health insurance to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al Had Murad Ebrahim.
“We welcome (you) on this humble yet historic grounds. We are humbled by this grand gesture of the president of personally launching several socio-economic projects on this hallowed ground that has seen many of the battles we have fought,” said Ebrahim, in a speech that welcomed Aquino at the camp’s Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute.
A parade of decorated motorboats was part of the festivity that welcomed Aquino at the MILF camp.
Aquino and Ebrahim launched the Sajahatra Bangsamoro socio-economic initiative, a programme aimed to reform the health, education and livelihood conditions of MILF communities in the southern Philippines.
Health Secretary Enrique Ona assisted in the distribution of health cards to community members.
Some 30 beneficiaries were also given scholarships for skills training.
The real target is “a thousand scholarships so that community members acquire skills. They need to be assisted in looking for jobs,” said Joel Villanueva, head of Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).
Education is the best gift of the government to prepare everyone in the south for peace, said Patricia Licuanan, head of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED).
Sajahatra Bangsamoro will be undertaken by various government agencies, including the Mindanao Development Authority, departments of agriculture; and social welfare and development.
Meanwhile, hundreds of government soldiers and policemen engaged MILF fighters in matches of football, softball and volleyball on Monday. They did not play basketball because they might turn competitive, said a source.
They had a “boodle fight” in an earlier meeting on Saturday, after they had secured the area for Aquino’s arrival. Reacting to this development, Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tucao Mastura said, “More than 40 years ago we have gunfight. Now we have boodle fight.”
About 5,000 state security forces secured Maguindanao and Cotabato City since Saturday, in preparation for Aquino’s arrival. They made sure that MILF faction, the Bangsa Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) could not disrupt Aquino’s visit.
Policemen and members of the Presidential Security Group secured Aquino inside the MILF camp.
Assessing Aquino’s visit to the MILF camp, MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar told GMA News which was aired in Manila, “He recognises his responsibility and the proper response to the problem of the Bangsamoro people. We thank him for that.”
Contrasting it with the visit of former president Joseph Estrada at MILF’s Camp Abubakar (first name of camp Darapanan) on July 10, 2000, Jaafar said, “(At the time) he insulted all Muslims worldwide because he brought in a truck of wine and roasted pig (lechon) and he and his companions drank wine and ate lechon inside the (camp’s) mosque.”
“We can see the stark difference between the president’s (Aquino) policy on anchoring a just and lasting peace on sincerity, perhaps from the policies of the previous administration,” deputy spokesperson Abigal Valte added in a radio interview.
Looking forward, Senator Franklin Drilon, the campaign manager of the ruling Liberal Party, said that Aquino’s senatorial candidates should be elected in May, to ensure that a bill is passed to form the Framework peace Agreement signed by the Philippine government and the MILF last October.
After finalising details of the signed political agreement, the Philippine government and the MILF will create a committee to draft the proposed bill that will create a new Bangsamoro political entity, with expanded autonomous area in the south by 2016.
Earlier, the two parties have inked initial agreements, including cooperation to flush terrorists out of Mindanao. But MILF factions have joined the Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf Group, known for its kidnap-for-ransom, beheadings, bombings, and other terror activities.
The MILF has been waging an armed rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the south since 1978. It gave up its secessionist stance when it responded to the government’s pro-autonomy peace initiative in 1997.