THEY WANDERED into the Palace grounds, some with the confident strides of hardened and fearless combat veterans, others with the uncertainty of warriors suddenly confronted with the violent colors of pomp and pageantry.
Several hundred representatives from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front joined diplomats and dignitaries, government officials, civil society members, and even their old enemies from the Armed Forces of the Philippines at the Kalayaan Hall grounds in Malacanang Palace on Thursday to witness the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, a peace agreement aimed at ending four decades of strife in the Southern Philippines.
MILF delegates in Malacanang (Julius Mariveles)
There were battlefield warriors who had made the smooth transition from fighting to talking – MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, sitting confidently at the presidential table with President Benigno S. Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Murad, or “Kagi Murad” to reporters who had been covering him from an earlier, more violent time, was dressed in a natty dark suit with a kopiya, a traditional Malay headdress that traces its roots from the Indonesian songkok.
Just more than a decade ago, Murad was more familiarly seen wearing camouflage battle dress in his old residence in Sarmiento, in the old MILF main camp of Abubakar Assidique in the mountains of Maguindanao. Murad, of course, used to be the military chief of the MILF, and directed the rebel group’s armed forces during its many skirmishes with the Philippine government.
A grizzled combat veteran, Murad had built the MILF into a competent and formidable fighting force that wielded battalion-strength formations, and had its own military academy.
Few people know it, but Murad, like some members of the MILF’s Central Committee, had studied in Catholic universities before joining the fight for an independent Islamic state in the early seventies. Murad and MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar were said to be former students of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City.
Murad in Malacanang, 2014
But the Murad who came to the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was Murad the diplomat, comfortable in English as he is in Maguindanaoan, settled in his dark suit and kopiya as he was in battle fatigues a decade ago.
After the signing of the CAB, Murad stayed on the stage for a few more minutes, gamely posing with admirers and well-wishers, and the occasional request for “selfies.”
One can imagine that the transition from warrior to peacemaker was not easy, even though few would volunteer to talk about it. The decision to find peace with honor, to talk peace and sign an agreement is perhaps the most difficult for any warrior. War means uncertainty, but it affords warriors the chance to affect history in the way they know how. Peace, on the other hand, means dealing with a whole different set of issues and players. As many warriors would say, it is easier to fight head-to-head than get stabbed in the back.
For the Moro National Liberation Front, the original rebel group that signed the first peace agreement with the government in 1996, agreeing to a peace deal meant losing many men and commanders. One close aide of Misuari recalled how, on the eve of the initialling of the 1996 peace agreement, Misuari was in tears as he faced his commanders, asking aloud if he was doing the right thing. The same was true for the MILF, after MILF base commander Ameril Umbra Kato splintered from the rebel group in protest against the peace talks.
Asked how difficult the transition was, Murad gave a guarded answer.
“Personally, it is very rewarding for us,” Murad said in the sidelines of the signing of the CAB. “So we hope we will still continue to achieve and realize what we (fought for.)”
“We have to be reminded that the struggle will be continuing. We need to move forward to realize what we need to achieve,” he said.
But there were those who were more generous in their recognition of this difficult transition.
“Truly, he is a warrior for all seasons,” said Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles of Murad. “We salute you for leading the MILF in war, and now in peace.”
It was Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who summed it all up perfectly.
“This is a momentous act of courage,” Razak said. “It would change the nation’s history forever.”
There were other warriors who came, some who had diverged to different paths, yet eventually coming back to the same road.
Abul Khayr Alonto, now the chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front after ousting MNLF founder Nur Misuari earlier this month, says the MNLF is fully in support of the MILF peace agreement. Misuari had voiced his opposition to the MILF peace deal, saying it was a betrayal of the 1996 agreement he signed with the government.
Alonto claims to be the real founder of the MNLF and the one who “recruited” Misuari into the rebel group.
“Misuari, he has to go down to earth,” Alonto said. “He has to go down from space.”
Alonto himself is a colorful character. He is widely credited as one of the founders of the MNLF, if not the original founder. In the book The Maranaws: Dwellers of the Lake by Abdullah Madale, Alonto is described as the vice chairman of the MNLF Central Committee who surrendered to President Marcos before being appointed by Marcos as Speaker of the Lupong Tagapagpaganap, the body that would govern the precursor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Alonto also says he was responsible for the creation of the MNLF. “I was the one who created it, I was the one who recruited Nur Misuari,” he said.
Towering behind him was the one Alonto called the only Field Marshall of the MNLF, a Tausug named Al Caluang who, Alonto said, is respected not just within the MNLF, but feared by the Armed Forces as well. Caluang still looks fearsome despite his age. He is said to be one of the members of Batch 90, the 90 volunteers who were trained in the jungles of Malaysia and formed the core command of the MNLF. Today, he smiles carefully, clutching at Alonto and whispering into his ear.
After all the pomp and pageantry, after the assembled VIPs had vacated the fancy stage, two young men were spotted busily shooting selfies while posed behind the podium with the seal of Malacanang Palace.
The young men were offspring of senior MILF commanders who had come to Malacanang, this time to wage peace. For their children, it was a momentous occasion to bask in the euphoria of the peace deal.
“Sana tuloy tuloy na ang kapayapaan sa Mindanao,” said Russel Pajiji. “Isa itong historical occasion, at pasalamat kami na nakasama kami sa signing ng Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.” (We hope this means peace for Mindanao. This is a historical event, and we are thankful to be part of this.)
Pajiji’s father is the MILF chairman for the Sulu Archipelago. The elder Pajiji was confined to a wheelchair at the sidelines of the signing of the peace agreement, watching everything from afar with a smile on his face.
Pajiji’s uncle, the MILF chairman for Tawi-Tawi, spoke instead for the group.
Asked what it was like for warriors to make peace, Haji Nasilim Hajim Pajiji went straight to the point.
“Bakit ba sila lumalaban? It is because they wanted to have peace.”
(Why are they fighting? It is because they wanted to have peace.)
“This is the very reason why we are fighting, why we wanted to be recognized, why we wanted our identity. It is simply because we would be able to introduce the solution of peace to Mindanao.”