Noynoy Aquino remembered for legacy of peace in Mindanao
On Sept. 3, 2009, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III met with a handful of civil society leaders and peace advocates in Davao City. Then a senator, he was still thinking about a possible run for the presidency.
Patricia Sarenas of the Mindanao Coalition of Development NGO Networks remembers how they impressed upon Aquino the peace and development concerns in Mindanao, particularly in the Bangsamoro areas. They asked him to promise them that he would be a “President for Mindanao.”
“That day, I believe, was when he first realized how important Mindanao is because until then, he seemed to be uninterested [in the issue] and did not feel it,” Sarenas says.
Aquino’s reflection tour took him to Cagayan de Oro City on Oct. 29, 2009, with the Balay Mindanaw Peace Center as host. He wrote on a souvenir of the visit: “So long as we hold on to our hopes and continue to fight for other’s interests, reaching the goal of peace is a certainty.”
Aquino took these words to heart when he was president. His administration concluded a landmark peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending four decades of separatist rebellion that had claimed some 120,000 lives and kept a large swathe of Mindanao, especially the Moro region, mired in underdevelopment.
“We would not have the Bangsamoro that we have today were it not for him,” former presidential peace adviser Teresita Quintos Deles told ABS-CBN News Channel in an interview about Aquino’s legacy.
Under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed on March 27, 2014, the MILF agreed to drop their arms in exchange for, among other things, redoing the Moro autonomy setup by giving it greater governance powers, conceding to it a fixed share in national revenues that it alone would decide on how to spend, and ensuring funding support for rehabilitating war-torn communities and decommissioning some 40,000 armed fighters.
Other key provisions of the peace deal were a recognition of Moro identity and acknowledgment of historical injustices through succession of government actions and policies that disfavored and discriminated against the Moro people.
Birth of BARMM
The CAB was the basis for enacting the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the charter of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) which became a reality on Jan. 25, 2019, when the law was ratified in a plebiscite.
With the BARMM established, 12,000 MILF combatants were decommissioned.
In paying tribute to Aquino, BARMM Interim Chief Minister Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, who is also MILF chair, cited his administration’s “efforts in revitalizing the peace talks” and “in laying the groundwork for lasting peace in Mindanao.”
Aquino inherited a peace process with the MILF “in shambles,” according to Deles, citing the botched signing of the landmark but controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did not stand up for in 2008.
There was a “very high distrust and disappointment” and also “escalated violence” even as the process had already gone on for 13 years by 2010, Deles recalls.
“He took positions, he took risks. He understood what the problems were. He understood that this [peacemaking] was a historical obligation,” she says.
But by the time Aquino took power, Deles says he already had a broad blueprint in hand from a policy brief on the peace process and security sector reform she was asked to prepare.
He understood that the Moro insurgency was “a problem that was festering and holding back Philippine progress,” says Deles, but his administration made sure that the process built on the gains of the 1996 peace pact between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front.
Talks with the MILF under Aquino began in February 2011, and he knew about every meeting of the peace panels. But when the negotiators “could not find a way out,” Deles says Aquino thought that he “should talk to them so [they] can understand where each one is coming from.”
This led to the Aug. 4, 2011, meeting between the president and Ebrahim in Narita, Japan. It was a watershed event for the peace talks which, according to the MILF leader, highlighted the sincerity of the Aquino administration in forging peace with his group.
In another tribute to the former president, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, a professor at the University of the Philippines who served as the government’s chief negotiator with the MILF, wrote on social media that Aquino “understood what had to be achieved to bring peace to Mindanao.”
“He brought over the entire government to this goal. He exacted due diligence from all of us, the same rigor he imposed upon himself for any policy decision he had to make,” Ferrer said.
“He knew the need to get all around support, telling us to address all the unknowns that create all sorts of fears around the Bangsamoro question. He wanted a just and honest deal. His injunctions: commit to what we can implement, implement what we commit; learn from the lessons of the past,” she said.
On Thursday, the interim Bangsamoro parliament passed a resolution honoring Aquino, lauding his legacy of empowering the Moro people.
“The Bangsamoro peace process had its major breakthrough because of his commitment to find a solution to the war in Mindanao. The peace agreement with the MILF was signed while he was the President, and all the gains following it were because of his hard work to make it happen,” the resolution read.
One of the most enduring peacemaking images of Aquino is when he announced the forging of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on Oct. 7, 2012, with his full Cabinet in tow.
The FAB, which now Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen negotiated for the government, served as the architecture of the eventual peace deal.
When the document was signed on Oct. 15, 2012, Aquino remarked: “I understand the temptations that can be borne of anger. I myself lost my father to an oppressive system; I myself thirsted for justice and was deprived of it then by the dictatorship. I empathize with our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters, and can only vow to work as hard as I can to see that the culture of impunity is dismantled, and that the foundations of righteousness and cooperation are laid. We will give our people what is truly due them: a chance to direct their lives toward advancement in a democratic, peaceful and safe society.”
To this day, Sarenas considers the 2009 Davao meeting “auspicious.”
“That day, we believed that he would be president for (my granddaughter) Kyra and all the children born in Mindanao who claim that Mindanao is the land of their birth!”
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