MANILA, Philippines—Three years since the collapse of a controversial homeland deal, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front met in historic hush-hush talks in Tokyo in hopes of moving forward protracted peace negotiations between the state and the secessionist group.
President Benigno Aquino III quietly flew to Tokyo on Thursday to meet with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in a suburb in Tokyo and they agreed to settle negotiations within the current administration.
“Both agreed to fast track the negotiations,” a Philippine government statement said after Aquino met Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim on Thursday near Tokyo’s Narita airport.
It was the first time in Philippine history that a meeting of such a high level took place abroad between a sitting president and the head of an insurgent group, said the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said Aquino “sought the meeting” as government prepared its agenda for official talks.
While accompanied by officials on both sides, Aquino and Murad met one-on-one, joined only by note-takers for documentation, Leonen said.
Leonen described the meeting as “cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement.”
“Both agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration. Both agreed to fast-track the negotiations,” Leonen said. Aquino’s six-year term ends in mid-2016.
Besides Leonen, the government party in the talks included Presidential Peace Adviser Secretary Teresita Deles, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
Members of the MILF Central Committee joined Murad in the “informal talks.
MILF vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar said it was a “fruitful meeting.”
“The government is serious in looking for genuine solution to the problem,” Ghadzali Jaafar, political affairs chief of the MILF, said by phone.
“Both leaders talked about the Bangsamoro problem as well as possible solutions to the problem,” he said.
“The government is serious in looking for (a) genuine solution to the problem,” said Jaafar, who did not travel with Ebrahim.
The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging an insurgency for more than three decades to carve out a separate Muslim state in the mostly Catholic country’s southern island of Mindanao.
The rebellion has killed over 150,000 people and stunted economic growth in the mineral rich but impoverished southern region.
Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, failed to sign a peace deal with the MILF during the nearly ten years she was in power.
Large scale fighting erupted in 2008 when rogue MILF commanders launched attacks in response to the Supreme Court outlawing a proposed peace deal that would have given them control over vast tracts of land.
More than 750,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting, triggering a humanitarian crisis.
About 400 civilians and fighters from both sides were also killed.
After Aquino came to power last year, peace talks resumed between the two sides in Malaysia, with the last round held in June.
The government said Friday that the Japan meeting was the first time a Philippine president had held face-to-face talks with the MILF chairman in 14 years of on-and-off peace negotiations.
The official negotiating panels of the two sides are now expected to head back to Malaysia to continue the talks in the middle of this month, both parties said.
The MILF broke away in 1978 from the Moro National Liberation Front, which launched a bloody separatist uprising in Mindanao in 1971 before signing a peace treaty with the Philippine government in 1996.
The treaty created a limited self-rule area called the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that has so far failed to uplift the condition of Filipino Muslims, who remain among the country’s poorest.
The MILF is the largest rebel group in Mindanao, but the area is also home to a small band of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants, as well as other armed groups who conduct kidnappings and extortions to raise money. With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao; Agence France-Presse
Originally posted at 3:44 p.m.