PHILIPPINES – Hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels are marching on a flag-bedecked dirt road leading to their headquarters at Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao to celebrate Monday’s signing of a framework agreement calling for the creation of a Bangsamoro.
“We are holding a party to show our support to the peace deal,” said Kongan Asim, who joined the MILF after it broke away from the Nur Misuari-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1982.
Mohammad Nasif, the camp commander, said he expected 2,500 MILF fighters to descend on the camp, and some of its 150 ground commanders to speak at a decorated stage to celebrate the occasion.
Murad Ebrahim, the MILF chief, in a statement issued on the eve of the signing, called the agreement a “milestone victory of peace and justice over war and continuous conflict.”
He said it did not mean the end of the struggle but would only usher in “a new and more challenging stage” in the Moro struggle.
Murad will lead a 156-strong MILF delegation in Manila for the signing in Malacañang to be attended by foreign dignitaries led by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who arrived Sunday afternoon.
Malaysia facilitated the talks, hosting the two parties in Kuala Lumpur until the deal was reached after 32 rounds of negotiations.
The MILF leader, who is in his 60s, flew in Monday on a chartered flight in his first trip to Manila since he assumed the leadership of the MILF upon the death of its founding chairman, Salamat Hashim, in 2003.
While the overall mood in Manila was upbeat, the Philippine National Police was not taking any chances as various organizations announced the holding of peace vigils on Chino Roces (Mendiola) Bridge leading to the Palace.
Chief Supt. Leonardo Espina of the National Capital Region Police Office said a force of 5,000 men from the PNP would be deployed in the Malacañang area alone.
“We put our security status on heightened alert in line with our standard operating procedures whenever foreign heads of state visit our country,” Espina said. He stressed that no specific threat had so far been detected.
Despite the expected absence of Misuari, it’s all systems go for the signing of the framework agreement for Bangsamoro between the Aquino administration and the 12,000-strong MILF, which calls for a “phased” disarmament of its forces until full autonomy is achieved by 2016.
Not leaving anything to chance, Malacañang officials held a walk through of the signing ceremony at 3 p.m. Monday, attended by Presidential Peace Process Adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles and other Cabinet members.
The Palace will accord Razak arrival honors. The Malaysian prime minister is to meet with Mr. Aquino at 10 a.m. Monday, ahead of the signing of the Bangsamoro deal in the afternoon.
Razak joins other foreign dignitaries, including the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in witnessing the signing between the two peace panel chairs—chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen and his MILF counterpart Mohagher Iqbal.
Ihsanoglu’s presence will signify the Islamic world’s recognition of the legitimacy of the accord, the Palace said.
Neither the President nor MILF chairman Murad will sign the 13-page document.
Malacañang doesn’t expect Misuari to show up at the presidential palace for the 1:30 p.m. signing, but an invitation has been sent to him.
In a radio interview Monday, Deles confirmed that the Aquino administration had been reaching out to Misuari, but the MNLF chief had rejected even an offer to sit on the 15-person Transition Commission that would draft the basic law creating Bangsamoro.
Deles called on Misuari to listen to the voice of the Bangsamoro people amid what appeared to be an overwhelming support for the deal aimed at finally putting an end to the 40-year conflict in the troubled parts of Mindanao.
The deal serves as a road map for replacing the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which Mr. Aquino has described as a “failed experiment.”
Deles explained that the most important signing ceremony in decades would entail no theatrics.
“No. Direct to the point. We don’t want to be distracted. I think the ceremony, the fact of the signing itself, is enough. It has enough drama and historical significance in itself, so we will no longer add anything to it,” she said.
Misuari has been attacking the accord that will supersede the peace agreement signed in 1996 between the Ramos administration and his MNLF.
“As of this day, Misuari doesn’t want to accept this (Bangsamoro deal), but we continually hope that he would eventually see the groundswell of support” from Moros themselves, Deles said.
She disclosed that other MNLF leaders had already expressed support for the peace deal.
“And we told our facilitator that what we want is not to leave behind the MNLF; we will not set aside the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (with the MNLF),” Deles said, hoping that the Misuari faction would still nominate someone to sit on the Transition Commission.
The MNLF officials will be led by Muslimin Sema, chairman of the Council of 15 that split from Misuari’s faction in 2001, ARMM Vice Gov. Hadja Bainon, former Governor Yusuf Jukiri of Sulu and former Assemblyman Hatimil Hassan, among others.
In all, Palace expects some 450 guests to attend the ceremony.
After the signing, Leonen and Iqbal will hold a joint press briefing.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigal Valte said the Palace was “very hopeful,” noting that “both sides are committed to giving peace a chance, to give hope a chance to flourish.”
“We will keep to the basics and we will keep it as solemn as possible,” Valte said, when asked to elaborate on preparations for the ceremony.
She said a 50-car caravan of peace advocates from Mindanao arrived Sunday in Manila to dramatize the support of the Bangsamoro people for the agreement.
The caravan, consisting of peace advocates from Cotabato, Marawi, Maguindanao and Davao City, was set to hold a vigil on Mendiola Bridge near Malacañang on the eve of the signing.
Around 3,000 Christians and Muslims, chanting “Allah is great,” massed at the foot of the bridge in support of the agreement. “This is is for peace,” Carlo Abdul Malik Cleofe, spokesperson of Anak Mindanao, told the crowd gathered for the event called, “Salubong at harana para sa kapayapaan,” or welcome and serenade for peace.
When asked about the significance of the Bangsamoro deal compared to the 1996 accord, Deles sent a text message, saying: “This will be fully implemented.”
She agreed that this would be a big step toward achieving lasting peace in Mindanao, pointing to the “overflowing support from Bangsamoro” for the deal.
Deles further said the scope of the Bangsamoro territory would not be part of the yet-to-be-negotiated annexes since the proposed areas for inclusion were already mentioned in the text of the accord.
“Same core territory—five provinces currently under the ARMM, six municipalities of Lanao del Norte and several barangays (villages) in North Cotabato—all adjacent and voted to be part of the ARMM in 2001. (They) will be asked again (to vote in a plebiscite),” she said.
According to Deles, it was logical to include Cotabato City and Isabela City in the Bangsamoro territory since the former is the current capital of the ARMM while the latter is part of Basilan, which is already part of the ARMM.
“No more annexes; there is no hidden list of areas to be covered (by Bangsamoro),” she said.
“Our real message is let’s give peace a chance. (Negotiating) this framework agreement was not easy. Signing it is setting a road map to end the four decades of hostilities with the MILF. We all know that this deal doesn’t end at signing,” she said.
“All of these (provisions in the agreement) can be delivered within his (Aquino) term, so we continue to ask from the people—give peace a chance—and continue their support and prayers,” Deles added.