CAMP DARAPANAN, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao (MindaNews/14 February) – “Let the people judge,” Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said on criticisms that they have “sold out” to or have been “coopted” by government with the launching Monday of the socio-economic initiative dubbed “Sajahatra Bangsamoro” (Peace Bangsamoro).
The criticisms stem from the fact that while the government and MILF had signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on October 15, they have yet to complete the four annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalization, and transitional arrangements and modalities that would form part of the “Comprehensive Compact.”
Launched Monday at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI) with President Benigno Simeon Aquino III setting foot in an MILF turf for the first time, “Sajahatra Bangsamoro” focuses on education, health and livelihood through scholarship grants, assistance to madaris, issuance of Philhealth cards, basic health care services, livelihood projects and cash for work for MILF communities.
“We recognize also that by undertaking joint development projects with government even before a comprehensive compact is signed, we might be putting in jeopardy some critical strategy that has guided our struggle for a long time. We are indeed, treading on uncharted and certainly dangerous path,” Murad said in his welcome address last Monday.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Murad told MindaNews at the receiving room of the peace panel’s office in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan that he is aware of the criticisms which is why in his speech, “I really emphasized that we’re really putting at risk the basic strategy of our struggle because we are still in the process (of completing the comprehensive peace pact) but we already accepted this (Sajahatra Bangsamoro).”
Speaking in mixed English and Pilipino, Murad, who assumed the post of MILF chair after Hashim Salamat’s death in July 2003, explained: “But then we are considering this as part of the confidence-building and so we also see the sincerity on the side of the government to really find a solution to the Mindanao problem.”
He acknowledged they have “mga agam-agam” (doubts) , “but finally we decided we will accept this token socio-economic development being given by the administration and hopefully it would, rather than be an obstacle to the talks, encourage the people to support the peace process.”
It is important, he stressed, that the people “should already feel the results of the peace process.”
It has been four months since the euphoria over the signing of the FAB and MILF communities have yet to feel the dividends of peace.
Murad said they are “willing to be very cooperative” to settle the contentious issues in the four annexes “but we cannot afford to trade in our principles which should be in the political agreement.”
Sajahatra Bangsamoro is a product of the “one-on-one” talks in Malacanang between President Aquino and Murad immediately after the signing of the FAB.
The President, he said, asked him about the MILF’s priorities for socio-economic development.
“I told him we are not focusing on big projects but a socio-economic program where people would feel that this is really for them. I said ordinary people do not welcome large-scale projects because they do not feel the impact.”
Murad recalled the President asked him to submit a list of priorities which the MILF handed over to then government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen in November.
He said the MILF opted for education, health and livelihood, in that order.
The Sajahatra primer does not say how many will benefit from these projects and how much the budget is.
Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, told MindaNews Thursday that the Office of the President is “not yet releasing estimates (of the budget)because planning and identifying beneficiaries are still ongoing with the MILF.”
Mike Pasigan, MILF spokesperson for the project, told MindaNews 11,000 members of MILF communities, both combatants and non-combatants, from MILF areas in Mindanao, including the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao provinces, the Zamboanga peninsula and Davao Oriental, will receive Philhealth cards whose premiums for two years will be paid by government while 500 students will receive college scholarships. A still undetermined number will receive scholarships for vocational school.
The other components do not have details as to number of beneficiaries.
Murad said they have yet to finalize identifying the beneficiaries.
He acknowledged that the list of beneficiaries would expose their communities and their commanders. “That is where the gamble is but then on the other side also, we see the effect of this on the fighters and our members because they always tie it up with the peace process. So that will give them more motivation to support the peace process.”
He noted that conflicts could arise because there is not enough cards or scholarships or livelihood projects for everyone.
“That is why identifying the beneficiaries is taking so long because we want to make sure that everyone will see that they will not be concentrated in one area. It has to be all over, that those from Maguindanao will not be the only ones who will benefit but Lanao and others as well. We have to make sure beneficiaries will be distributed and that we target the most needy. So we are very careful on that.”
The government wanted to give him a Philhealth card but he refused.
MindaNew sources from both government and the MILF said that initially, Murad’s card was supposed to have been handed over to him on stage but this part of the program was scrapped upon the MILF’s request.
Before the launch, a Philhealth official told MindaNews Murad’s card was ready but it would not be handed to him publicly.
Murad said he received no card last Monday. He said he did not want to accept any because “we do not want our people to think we would benefit first. They should benefit first.”
Despite the criticisms, Murad is firm that Sajahatra Bangsamoro is not a counter-insurgency program of government but is part of the peace process.
“Our position is, if there is socio-economic development, it has to be parallel with the progress of the peace talks. So admittedly there was a major progress in the peace process after the signing of the Framework Agreement. We have seen there is a general framework so we can now admit token socioeconomic program to motivate people to support the peace process. The socio-economic step is parallel to the peace process. What we do not want is that the peace process is on a standstill and the socioeconomic program continues because that will be counter-insurgency. But if it goes together, then we can see it is a product of the peace process and not counter-insurgency.”
In his speech on Monday, Murad shifted to Maguindanaon to address the beneficiaries present, MILF combatants among them.
He said he explained to them that “this is not the payment for their sacrifices because sacrifices are priceless. This is the result of the partnership (with government).”
He said he is aware that “this can be capitalized on by the critics of the MILF, especially the hardliners who will say the MILF has sold out just because they were given Philhealth cards, scholarships, etc… So we had to explain to them that this is part of the peace process and not as payment.”
Murad said the “overwhelming” support given to the peace process will see them through.
“We can see the overwhelming support of the people to the Framework Agreement, anywhere we go. So those who criticize, if they are not careful, they become unpopular to the people. The people will see that they are just criticizing. This is why we do not want to answer, we avoid answering these criticisms because let the people judge what they say and we will concentrate on what we see are the advantages or benefits of the agreement,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)