COTABATO CITY—Some 150 motorized boats colorfully decorated and carrying about 2,000 people will greet President Benigno Aquino III when he makes a side trip to this city before proceeding to the headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in nearby Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on Monday.
The boats are taking part in the fluvial parade that will start from Taviran River and go all the way to Kalanganan River here to welcome Mr. Aquino, the first Philippine president to visit an MILF stronghold in peace.
The first President to enter the same MILF camp then named Abubakar (now Camp Darapanan) was Joseph Estrada, but that was after the military had bombed peace out of Mindanao in 2000 under his all-out war policy on the Moro secessionist movement.
Mr. Aquino is visiting the MILF main camp in Sultan Kudarat to launch Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a social development program for the 12,000-strong MILF and Moro communities.
After speaking to residents of Kalanganan village, Mr. Aquino will be sent off by well-wishers, including soldiers and Moro officials, to Camp Darapanan during the fluvial parade.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, speaking for the 6th Infantry Division (ID), said the fluvial parade was actually a military-initiated event and was supposed to be held on Jan. 29. But it was reset for Monday because the President would be in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum annual meeting.
New approach to peace
Hermoso said after his speech, Mr. Aquino would open a football match between soldiers and MILF rebels at the military’s Camp Siongco in Datu Odin, Maguindanao.
“Other sports activities for the day will also be held with participants coming from government offices and other military and police units,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Caesar Ronnie Ordoyo, 6th ID commander, said the fluvial parade and the games were part of the military’s manifestation of support for the peace process.
“This is a new military approach to winning peace,” he said, adding that negotiations, such as those with the MILF, are the most “humane and inexpensive” formula for peace.
Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF political affairs chief, said the MILF believed in the sincerity of only three Philippine presidents in the efforts to resolve the Moro conflict.
He said they were Mr. Aquino, his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, and former President Fidel Ramos.
Jaafar said the Moro people only got the attention they deserved from President Aquino while his mother started the peace negotiations with Moro rebels.
Ramos, on the other hand, signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front and called on the MILF to do the same, he said.
Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras announced here on Thursday Mr. Aquino’s visit would be for the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro.
“We have enough money for peace-building,” Almendras said.
Almendras said the government knew that development and progress are not possible without genuine and lasting peace, the reason that it strove for a peace agreement with the MILF.
The government and the MILF signed a preliminary peace deal, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, in Malacañang in August last year.
The final peace agreement will be signed this year after the annexes to the preliminary accord have been finalized.
“I’m so proud of the people on both sides of the table. The people who are firing guns at each other are now sitting together at one table and talking about how to make this work. That is a victory already,” Almendras said.
Mike Pasigan, MILF spokesperson for Sajahatra Bangsamoro, said the government program was “proof of the strong relationship being built by the government and the MILF toward real and lasting peace and development for the envisioned Bangsamoro region.”
“This is a big confidence-building measure in the peace process. The good relationship between the two parties, if it continues, will definitely lead to lasting peace in which the whole country will benefit,” he said.
Almendras said that under the social development concept, “government agencies are pulling their weight, doing everything that they can” to improve the lives of the Moro people.
He said other groups should not be jealous of the attention the government is giving to the MILF and the Moro communities because the programs being implemented for them, such as Sajahatra Bangsamoro, “will also benefit the entire country.”
“There’s even a time dimension; it will not only benefit the people of today but also the generation that will come after today,” Almendras said.
EU partner in peace process
The Philippines’ international partners in the peace process are helping to push the framework agreement forward.
The European Union is rolling out new development and poverty-easing programs for Mindanao this year in support of the preliminary peace deal between the Aquino administration and the MILF.
Guy Ledoux, ambassador of the EU Delegation in the Philippines, said he was optimistic about the progress of the peace talks following the signing of the preliminary deal last year.
“As far as I know, since the framework agreement was signed, there have been regular talks between the two peace panels in Kuala Lumpur on a monthly basis. I think they are making progress,” Ledoux said in a recent press briefing.
Ledoux said Mindanao will be a priority area in the EU’s allocation of P2 billion in fresh assistance for the Philippines this year.
He said funding for Mindanao would continue for poverty reduction programs in the region, initiated last year through some P300 million in grants funneled through the World Food Programme.
“We have been very much involved in supporting the political process, as well as providing assistance on the island. We aim for peace dividends for all the population and [the EU] is likely to put money in those types of projects,” Ledoux said.
Part of the fresh funds will go to health services, particularly to programs of the Department of Health.
The European Union is among the Philippines’ largest donors, second only to Japan, with roughly P5.9 billion in aid disbursements in 2011, 90 percent of which are “direct grants rather than loans.”
This is on top of bilateral aid provided by individual European countries, notably the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
Spain also provides development aid to Mindanao, particularly for projects in Northern Mindanao and Zamboanga Peninsula, according to Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines Jorge Domecq. With a report from Tarra Quismundo
First posted 7:43 pm | Saturday, February 9th, 2013