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Philippines, Muslim group deal prompts authorities to fast-track talks

Filipino-Muslims and negotiators seek final political settlement in 2016

Image Credit: EPA
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chief Al Haj Murad, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Teresita Quintos-Deles, adviser on the peace process witness the exchange of documents after signing of a framework agreement between the Philippines government and Muslim separatist rebels inside the Malacanang presidential palace, Manila, Philippines, 15 October 2012.
Gulf News

Manila: A jubilant and emotional signing of the framework agreement between the Philippine government and a former secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at the presidential palace on Monday prompted leaders and negotiators to commit to work harder and fast-track future talks — for the achievement of a wider area of autonomy and enhanced self-governance for Filipino-Muslims in the southern Philippines ahead of 2016.

Noting that negotiators of the Philippine agreement and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have a great task ahead of them after after the signing of the framework agreement, after 15 years of talking, President Benigno Aquino said, “I thank them in advance for the hard work.”

“I vow to work as hard as I can so that the culture of impunity [created by Christian-Muslim conflict in Mindanao, southern Philippines since the late ’60s] is dismantled,” said Aquino.

The Philippine government and the MILF agreed to shorten from six to three years the transition period for the framework agreement to be implemented, which occurred when Aquino held a secret meeting with MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim in Japan in August 2010.

“[At the time] I [being a president] was criticised for meeting Murad [a rebel leader]. [But] I approached Murad [then] as a fellow Filipino, a fellow victim of unresponsive system [of the past which should be changed],” said Aquino.

Calling Murad “a partner, an astute sportsman, and flexible despite his ideology,” Aquino said, “We owe him our collective task.”

Revealing how the MILF had to bend backwards for the sake of peace in Mindanao, Murad said the signing of the framework agreement with the Philippine government was “the most civilised way” to solve the adversarial relationship between Christians and Muslims for the past 40 years in the south.

Showing a spirit of reconciliation, Murad said, “Today, I extend the hand of friendship to the Filipino people. Today, we are here to put an end to the adversarial relationship between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine nation. Today, it humbles me to say before you, we stayed our course, perseverance has prevailed.”

“This is the sound of peace,” said Murad as he dramatically tapped a small Muslim gong which he gave to Aquino.

Confessing what he felt, being the first Filipino-Muslim rebel leader to enter Malacanang, the presidential palace, Murad said, “Never in my wildest dreams since I was a child or when I joined the Bangsamoro struggle over 40 years ago, did I dream that I will see the interior of this building.”

Most importantly, Murad called on a fellow Filipino-Muslim rebel leader, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Chairman Nur Misuari, to support the framework agreement, “join in the journey for peace in Mindanao and signal the start of unity between MILF and MNLF”.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najeeb Razzaq extended Malaysia’s assistance in future talks to be held by the Philippine government and the MILF, adding, “We will stand with you to make this agreement work. I look forward to the final agreement. After decades, peace is within reach [in the south].”

Explaining what the framework agreement has truly achieved, Razzak said, “It does not solve all problems [but] it sets parameters for peace, restores dignity to people of [the] southern Philippines.”

Looking forward, Secretary Teresita Deles, head of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), said, “We are challenged by difficult tasks ahead.”

Accompanying Murad at the presidential palace were 200 MILF members. About 500 other MILF members stayed at Manila’s Mendiola Bridge (near the presidential palace), where they shouted with joy, embraced each other as soon as Philippine government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen and MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal signed the 13-page framework agreement..

“Malacanang was jampacked at the signing of the agreement,” said Deles.

Reacting to the impact of the agreement on residents in Mindanao,a member of the MILF caravan that stayed at the Mendiola Bridge said, “The framework agreement is a good start.”

“It has given us hope. Now we can go back to our homes after living in refugee centres,” said the same source who requested anonymity.

Aquino described the agreement in inspiring words, adding it augurs well for peace “not only in Mindanao but nationwide”.

“We commit to peace: a peace that will be sustained through democratic ideals; a peace that heals and empowers,” Aquino promised.

“Today we turn our backs on violence and turn instead towards a brighter future,” Malaysian Prime Minister Razzak also said.

The framework agreement called for the establishment of a 15-man commission through President Aquino’s executive order. The commission will draft a law for the establishment of an autonomous region for Filipino-Muslims, to be called Bangsamoro Political Entity (BPE). Its core area will consist of the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which has five provinces and one city.

The proposed BJE will be larger, with three cities, six more towns from Lanao del Norte, and 735 villages. These areas were identified as potential BJE members because majority of residents voted for autonomy in referendums in 1989 and 2001.

The commission will also tackle proposed power and political sharing between BJE and the national government.

Congress will approve the proposed law, for the holding of another referendum for autonomy, and for the power to be extended to BJE.

The 12,000-strong MILF gave up its secessionist stance when it responded to the pro-autonomy peace initiative of the Philippine government in 1997.

That was after the Philippine government and the MNLF forged a pro-autonomy peace settlement, in 1996, following talks that began in 1992.

The Philippine government-MNLF peace settlement in 1996 resulted in the holding of a second referendum which resulted in ARMM’s expansion. The first referendum for ARMM was held in 1989, following a provision of the Organic Act in the 1987 Constitution.

The MILF was part of the MNLF which waged a separatist war that killed 150,000 in the south in the early ’70s. The MILF became a faction of the MNLF in 1978.