COTABATO CITY—It’s all green and yellow from here to Barangay (village) Simuay in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, where President Aquino is visiting the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Monday to promote peace in Mindanao.
Green is the official color of the MILF, while yellow is identified with the President and his mother, the late President Cory Aquino.
A fluvial parade of dozens of colorfully decorated motorboats will welcome Aquino, who will be escorted by a 2,500-strong security force composed of troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and the MILF.
Government forces and MILF guerrillas will also meet in sporting events to mark the first visit in peace by a Philippine leader to the Moro rebels’ stronghold.
Aquino is visiting the main rebel camp to launch with MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim the Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a social development program for the 12,000-strong MILF and Muslim communities.
The President and Murad will hand out social security benefits to impoverished Muslim residents to show their sincerity in furthering the peace process.
On the way to the MILF’s Camp Darapanan, both sides of the main road are lined with colorful bandala (flags) and streamers in green and yellow welcoming the President and his party.
More than 24 Army armored personnel carriers and joint forces from the 40th, 7th and 37th Infantry Battalions have been positioned on all the roads leading to Crossing Simuay, the sentry to Camp Darapanan, the military said.
Some 3,000 uniformed but unarmed MILF fighters will stand side by side with the government troops in securing the highways leading to Crossing Simuay, said Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF chief for political affairs.
Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., the military’s spokesperson, said the joint forces would secure not only the President but all other officials going to Camp Darapanan for the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro.
“In a very significant ceremony where no less than our President is the guest of honor, I think this is the first time that they (the military, the police, and the MILF) are joining forces,” Burgos said.
Besides the three-force security, members of the International Monitoring Team and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities will help secure the visitors, Burgos said.
So far, however, no threats to public security have been monitored, Burgos said. But government security forces continue to monitor the peace situation, he said.
From Cotabato City to Simuay, traffic passes through at least eight checkpoints manned by police and soldiers.
Houses along the highway display green flaglets, signifying support for the MILF in welcoming the President.
Jaafar said the President’s visit would be another milestone in the MILF’s quest for lasting peace.
“We hope his visit will give him the opportunity to see the real picture of the bigger portion of Mindanao, especially Muslim Mindanao where people are deprived and marginalized compared to their brethren in other parts of the island,” Jaafar said.
In 1986, the President’s mother visited Sulu, stronghold of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to meet with the secessionist group’s leader, Nur Misuari.
That presidential visit led to peace negotiations that culminated in the signing of a limited autonomy agreement between the MNLF and the administration of President Fidel Ramos in 1996.
In October last year, President Aquino received Murad in Malacañang and the peace negotiators of the government and the MILF signed a framework agreement for the establishment of a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao as a first step to lasting peace on the island.
In 2000, then President Joseph Estrada entered the captured MILF main camp, Abubakar, in Matanog town, Maguindanao.
Estrada celebrated the fall of Camp Abubakar by feasting on beer and roast pig, both taboo for Muslims.
“This time, the President is coming not for war but for lasting peace. This is historic,” said Mike Pasigan, MILF spokesman for Sajahatra Bangsamoro.
Jaafar said the two Presidents Aquino “have hearts for the Bangsamoro and we recognized that.”
He said he was excited about personally seeing the President again.
“I am as excited as the first meeting when we went to Malacañang last year,” Jaafar said.
He said that in coming to Camp Darapanan, President Aquino is reciprocating Murad’s visit to Malacañang on Oct. 15 last year for the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
Aquino, his Cabinet officials, and Murad will meet at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute in Camp Darapanan, which was built with aid from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Jaafar said the event was symbolic of governmental services to be extended to the Moro people. About 300 uniformed but unarmed MILF fighters led by Murad will receive PhilHealth cards, symbolizing the start of governmental health services for for the Bangsamoro people.
Other governmental agencies will also launch services, including education, technical skills training, health and social welfare.
Joining the President for the launch of the services are Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles, Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang, Communication Secretary Herminio Coloma, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, Secretary Lualhati Antonino of the Mindanao Development Authority, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Higher Education Commissioner Patricia Licuanan and Director Joel Villanueva of the Technical Skills Develpment Authority.
Parade and games
After the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, the President is expected to join a fluvial parade for peace on the Rio Grande de Mindanao. The parade is sponsored by the military to show its participation in quest for peace in Mindanao.
Col. Dickson Hermoso of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the government troops and the MILF guerrillas, who once fought each other fiercely, would play “friendly matches” of football, softball and volleyball.
President Aquino himself will kick off the football match between the soldiers and the MILF fighters.
Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tocao Mastura said the mutual ties between the former adversaries should be enhanced even after Monday’s presidential visit.
On Saturday, government soldiers and MILF guerrillas had a “boodle fight”—eating together at the same table using bare hands—during sendoff ceremonies for those who would secure the President.
“As they say, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We will finally achieve the peace that we have been longing for,” said Gen. Gilberto Jose Roa, chairman of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.—With reports from TJ Burgonio and Marlon Ramos in Manila, and AP