SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao—President Aquino on Monday paid a historic visit to the stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) here and said the peace talks must be speeded up.
As hundreds of military troops and MILF fighters stood guard outside the Moro rebel’s Camp Darapanan, Aquino and MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad handed out educational, health and livelihood benefits to the families of the rebels to show the government’s intention to improve the lives of the Muslims in Mindanao.
It was the first presidential visit in peace to the MILF’s stronghold in Maguindanao province, which has a recent history of major battles between government forces and Muslim insurgents, who were at times suspected to have been aided by al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
In his speech during the ceremonies for the launch of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a social development program for the MILF and Moro communities, Aquino said the peace process should be completed before his term ends in 2016.
“We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent,” Aquino said.
The President said the completion of the process during his term would ensure that future peaceful relations would not depend on who is in office.
He said the peace process had reached “Heartbreak Hill,” a reference to the final but uphill stretch of the famed Boston Marathon, and “there should be no turning back.”
“We are near the fruits of our labor. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint,” Aquino told MILF leaders, Moro residents of the sprawling camp, and foreign diplomats who came here to see the launching of social services for the Muslims of Mindanao.
Under the new program, the Aquino administration is pledging to provide health insurance, assistance in finding jobs and funding for schools for the rebels’ families.
“As we near the top of Heartbreak Hill, more intrigues will come our way. The process is difficult. But remember, what has brought us here is trust,” Aquino said.
The Aquino administration and the MILF signed last October a “framework agreement” for the establishment of Bangsamoro, a new autonomous region in Mindanao, by 2016 to end a decades-long Muslim rebellion for a separate state in Mindanao.
But the full details of the agreement are still being thrashed out, and Aquino warned that unnamed figures were putting up “obstacles” to peace.
He said friends had warned him not to enter MILF territory but he replied, “If I can be a bridge, then the sacrifice of one Noynoy (his nickname) is worth it to help so many of our countrymen.”
Applause interrupted the President’s speech.
“I’m just returning the trust you’ve given me; we understand each other so much because we’re ready to sacrifice for one another,” Aquino said.
“I think before I step down, the problem will not be fighting but traffic,” he added, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
Speaking for his community, Murad said the MILF was humbled by Aquino’s “grand gesture” of personally launching the socioeconomic program “on this hallowed ground that has seen many battles that we have fought to win freedom and the right of our people to chart their own history.”
While welcoming the government’s initiative, Murad cautioned both sides against plunging headlong into development without a comprehensive peace agreement lest the effort go to waste.
Development, Murad said, must “stand on the solid foundation of peace,” the kind that is achieved by dealing with the fundamental political issues that fueled the conflict in the first place.
Muslim rebels began fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines that the country’s Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.
An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.
Most important task
A comprehensive peace agreement “must remain the single most important task of this partnership, for only when we achieve this can we be assured of real development,” Murad said.
Facing reporters with Murad later, Aquino said he agreed with the MILF leader’s views.
“I agree with the concept,” Aquino said. “For instance, what kind of problems will take place? There is what we call ‘donor fatigue’? And there is a saying that ‘success has many fathers; failure is a lonely orphan.’”
Murad shrugged off comments by Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who is opposing a separate peace agreement between the government and the MILF, that the preliminary peace accord was unconstitutional.
“Perhaps we could influence them,” Murad said. “They’ll realize what good this will bring.”
Cabinet officials helped the President symbolically turn over PhilHealth cards, vouchers for scholarship grants, and certificates of eligibility for livelihood training to MILF rebels and their families.
“Through the Sajahatra Bangsamoro program, we’re showing that we need not wait for a long time to experience transformation,” Aquino said.
“The 11,000 beneficiaries of the MILF need not grow old to be covered by PhilHealth or cash for work program,” he said.
Aquino said the program, which would be implemented in Bangsamoro communities in 18 months, was only part of an extensive strategy to improve the lives of the Muslims of Mindanao.
The President pointed to verdant rolling hills beyond the MILF camp. “There are many idle lands that tillers could benefit from,” he said. “Why can’t development in other areas happen here in your place?”
He mentioned the development of sea-and-land travel to Mindanao, which would shorten travel to the island from Luzon from days to just 15 hours.
After the Sajahatra Bangsamoro launching, the President and his party moved to Datu Odin Sinsuat, where he opened a football match between government soldiers and MILF guerrillas.
Volleyball and softball matches were also lined up for the afternoon.
Government officials who traveled to Camp Darapanan with Aquino were 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, Heath Secretary Enrique Ona, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Higher Education Commissioner Patricia Licuanan and Director Joel Villanueva of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.—With reports from AP and AFP