MILF chief: PNoy visit 'a grand gesture of peace'

by Ira Pedrasa, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Feb 11 2013 03:27 PM | Updated as of Feb 12 2013 10:18 AM

MANILA (1st UPDATE) - In what Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al haj Murad Ebrahim described as a “grand gesture of peace,” President Benigno Aquino III set foot on the rebels’ lair on Monday.

Another historic meeting by the two leaders at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao is deemed by some as a step forward in achieving a lasting peace pact.

Ebrahim said the meeting place in itself is significant since it represents the Mindanao people’s dream of development.

“We can't jump immediately into massive programs without the foundation of durable peace,” he said in his speech.

He noted that development is a continuing process, which can only be bolstered by a more comprehensive and compact agreement.

The two leaders last met when they signed the framework agreement on the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity in October 2012.

“As Muslims and revolutionaries, we dream of the dawning of peace and development for our people,” he said.

He added the MILF “stands ready” to become the Philippines’ partner for initiatives as long as there is sincerity on the part of all stakeholders.

“We've always believed in the legitimacy of our cause. This and the enduring commitment and the dedication of our people cannot be defeated,” he said.

He noted that “it takes more courage to wage peace than to wage war.”

The "framework agreement" commits the Aquino government to form a new autonomous entity on Mindanao by 2016 to end a decades-long guerrilla war for a separate state.

But the full details of the agreement are still being thrashed out even as Aquino warned that unnamed figures were putting up "obstacles" to peace.

Sajahatra Bangsamoro

Aquino and Ebrahim launched today the Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a socio-economic peace initiative that aims to uplift the health, education and livelihood conditions of MILF communities.

MILF describes Sajahatra as peace or blissful, a word common to most Moro ethnic tribes with some minor variations in pronouncement.

Aquino handed out educational, health and livelihood benefits to the families of the rebels, to show his government's intention to improve the lives of the Muslim minority in the largely Christian nation.

Aquino said peace talks should be completed before his term ends in 2016.

"We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent," he said.

Aquino said this would ensure that future peaceful relations would not be dependent on who is in office.

"We are near the fruits of our labour. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint," he told MILF leaders, Muslim residents and foreign diplomats in a sprawling community housing many of the best-armed MILF fighters.

Aquino said friends had warned him not to enter MILF territory but he replied, "If I can be a bridge, then the sacrifice of one Noynoy (his nickname) is worth it to help so many of our countrymen".

In a separate development, Aquino has reportedly signed the appointment papers of the members of the Transition Commission that will draft the Bangsamoro blueprint.

Luwaran, the official website of the MILF, said three members of the commission come from Sulu (two men and one woman), one from Basilan, a Christian woman with Moro blood, two from Maguindanao (both women, one of whom is a member of the T’duray tribe), and one from Lanao.

Muslim rebels began fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country's Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.

An estimated 150,000 people died in the conflict. -- with Agence France-Presse