MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim presents a token to President Aquino just before the signing of the Framework Agreement between the GRP and the MILF in Malacanang (Malacanang photo)
FOR ALL THE hundreds of assembled VIPs and diplomats in Malacanang, for all the lofty speeches and praises that were sounded off during today’s signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), there was one image constantly on everyone’s minds and lips – that of young children growing up in a time of conflict.
One by one, the assembled dignitaries, from President Benigno S. Aquino III, to MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles, all spoke of children as the real victims, as those who have had to endure the horrors of four decades of conflict in Mindanao. (View a related PCIJ story here.)
It was precisely this image that had spurred everyone, from governments to Moro rebels, to find a workable peace in the region. And it is to these children that the peace effort was dedicated.
“We are here to put an end to the adversarial relationship between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine nation,” said MILF’s Murad in his speech. “We pray never to see again the refugee camps… the camps with old folks, women and children wallowing in squalor and misery, and never witness again the wholesale violations of human rights.”
For his part, President Aquino said that the Framework Agreement, as a starting point for a final peace agreement, would usher in an era where children who once only witnessed war and “swept bullet casings” off their floors would now “witness harvests.”
“Today, a child will grow up in our generation embracing the identity of the Bangsamoro,” Deles said in a voice that cracked with emotion. This agreement, she added, was the effort of her generation to “assure them that it will be a better tomorrow.”
In his speech, President Aquino reiterated his government’s commitment to forge peace with the MILF. The President said that like the Moro rebels, he knew what it was like to lose loved once to an oppressive system.
“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 towards advancement in a democratic, peaceful, and safe society,” the President said.
“This agreement not only marks a new chapter in our history; it now defines the very path we take as a people—one where opinions are heard and hope is shared; where understanding and consensus breed meaningful solutions for all stakeholders; one where every child is offered the opportunity to shape his own destiny,” he added.
For his part, Murad said that the MILF had never wavered in its desire for a negotiated settlement since the decision was made by the late MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim in 1997. For the next fifteen years, Murad said, the MILF consistently kept the doors to peace open despite three all-out wars launched by two Philippine Presidents against the MILF.
Perhaps for this reason, Murad repeated the customary Arabic phrase “Assalamu Alaikum” several times. The Arabic phrase, commonly used by Muslims all over the world to greet each other, means “Peace be upon you.”
“Today it humbles me to say before you that we have stayed the course, our perseverance has prevailed over those whose obsession is to perpetuate war,” Murad said. “We have inked the most important document in the chapter of our history.”
“Today we extend our hand for partnership, for a historic journey to rebuild our homeland and restore normalcy,” Murad added.
Murad also called on the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to take part in the peace talks between the government and the MILF. MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari had protested the signing of the Framework Agreement between the MILF and the government, saying that the Philippine government had not yet even fulfilled its part in the 1996 peace agreement it signed with the MNLF. The MILF under Salamat had broken away from Misuari’s MNLF in 1978 over disagreements over Misuari’s leadership.
“Let me have this opportunity to call on our MNLF brethren to support the Framework Agreement, to take this historic journey with us and rebuild (our homeland),” Murad said. “This is not the time for recriminations, this is the time for unity, the time to think and act as one Bangsamoro, as we summon all our strength to face the daunting task of (self rule).”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak praised both parties in the negotiations for their persistence and patience. Razak said the Framework Agreement was “tribute to the quiet bravery of negotiations.”
“In confronting the differences and finding common ground, both sides have given something,” Razak said. “But the people of the Southern Philippines have gained everything.”
“For Mindanao, there can be no more lost generations,” he added. “The Koran says, whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.”
All the parties however acknowledged that greater difficulties lie ahead, as both the government and the MILF hammer out details to give flesh and blood to the Framework Agreement. The Framework Agreement that was signed in Malacanang only serves as a roadmap for the continuing negotiations, and is in no way the final peace agreement.
“You have our assurance, we will stand with you to make this agreement work,” Razak said.
“Much work remains to be done to reap the fruits of this agreement,” said President Aquino. “We have commitments to fulfill. The details are to be laid out in annexes to provide opportunities to expand on our common ground.”
There were lighter moments during the signing ceremonies. Murad, the MILF chairman, spoke of how he had never imagined the day when he would visit Malacanang Palace as head of a delegation of Moro rebels. This was a Palace he said, that had been the home of a variety of Spanish, American, and Filipino leaders who were responsible for the conflict in his homeland.
“I must confess this is the first time in my life to step in the grounds of Malacanang,” Murad told the assembled dignitaries. “Never in my wildest dreams since I was a child or when I joined the Bangsamoro struggle 40 years ago that one day I will see the interior of this building that once housed the Spanish and American Governor Generals and now the Presidents of the Philippines.”
Curiously, Murad recognized the presence of President Aquino’s younger sister, celebrity personality Kris Aquino, who was seated in the front row. Murad acknowledged her presence with a grin even before acknowledging the presence of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Orgnization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the members of the diplomatic corps and the President’s Cabinet.
The signing ceremony was originally scheduled for 1:30 in the afternoon of October 15, but the ceremonies only began at at two in the afternoon. Murad led a large delegation from the MILF that included MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, senior negotiator Michael Mastura, and several senior commanders of the rebel movement. Also present were members of the diplomatic corps, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, as well as delegations from both chambers of Congress.
The Framework Agreement was signed by government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen and MILF’s Iqbal in the presence of President Aquino and Murad at three in the afternoon. The 2012 GRP-MILF Framework Agreement may be read here.
“I ask the entire nation, and the entire world, to join me in imagining: A Mindanao finally free from strife, where people achieve their fullest potential,” President Aquino said. “A child in Lamitan will be offered the same education as a child in Quezon City; the sick of Patikul will gain access to the same healthcare as those in Pasig; tourists visiting Boracay will also have Sulu in their itineraries; a businessman will earn a profit whether he sets up shop in Marikina or Marawi.”
“People will be empowered; they will gain knowledge and marketable skills that will thrust the economy forward. From constant displacement, there will be now a stable employment. Children who have had to witness immeasurable suffering will now get to witness a harvest; sons and daughters who have had to sweep bullet casings from their yards will now get to pick fruit; families who once cowered in fear of gunshots will now emerge from their homes to a bright new dawn of equity, justice, and peace,” he added.
“We hope that this brings about a new time of moderation, of peaceful coexistence, of freedom of religion, of people of different faiths living together, united by common values,” Malaysia’s Razak said. “After four decades, peace is within reach. Let us grasp this with both hands and never let go.”