SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao (MindaNews/11 February) — Neither the government nor the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) remembered.
February 11, 2013, the day they launched “Sajahatra Bangsamoro,” a socio-economic peace initiative of government in partnership with the MILF, was exactly 10 years to the day the Philippine government, under then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, launched aerial bombings to signal the start of the Buliok war on the day of Eid’l Adha (Feast of Sacrifice).
The 2003 war, initially launched purportedly against a kidnap-for-ransom gang, but later admitted by the military to be against the MILF, disrupted the peace negotiations, displaced nearly half a million residents, and drove the MILF leadership, then under Chairman Hashim Salamat, out of their base in Buliok.
Exactly ten years later, President Benigno Simeon Aquino set foot in the MILF’s turf at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI), accompanied by eight Cabinet secretaries and other key officials, the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff and Philippine National Police director-general, armed not with bombs and other war materiel but Philhealth cards, scholarship grants and livelihood projects for MILF communities.
MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and members of his Central Committee lined up to welcome the President as he disembarked from his vehicle at 11:22 a.m.
But neither Murad nor the President looked back to February 11, 2003 in their speeches.
In his 13-minute welcome address, Murad said they are “humbled by this grand gesture” of the President to personally launch socio-economic projects in partnership with the MILF “on this hallowed ground that had seen many of the battles that we fought to win freedom and the right of our own people to chart their own destiny.”
“We welcome these initial dividends of peace. We welcome development. We welcome the continuing partnership between government and the MILF…. but while we welcome this sincere gesture of the government to make immediate the dividends of peace to our people, we caution all not to lose sight of the imperative and the challenges of the works ahead, that of achieving in the soonest possible the signing of a comprehensive compact between the government and MILF.”
The two parties signed in Malacanang on October 15, 2012 the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and are still working on the four annexes on wealth-sharing, power-sharing, normalization and transitional arrangements and modalities. The annexes, which will complete what would be the comprehensive peace agreement, were supposed to have been completed by December 31, 2012.
Under the FAB, the parties agreed to “intensify development efforts for rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development of the Bangsamoro, and institute programs to address the needs of MILF combatants, internally displaced persons, and poverty-stricken communities.”
Sajahatra Bangsamoro, according to its primer, focuses on “uplifting the health, education and livelihood conditions in MILF communities towards realizing long-term peace and development.”
The Office of the Cabinet Secretary convenes the inter-agency technical working group but all activities are jointly undertaken by both government and the MILF.
“Sajahatra” is an Arabic-Bahasa-Melayu derivative denoting blessings, prosperity and peace.
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles said the FAB signing promised a new dawn. “Ngayon po ako ay nagising sa umagang kay ganda” (Today I woke up to a beautiful morning).
For the President, “abot-kamay na po ang bunga ng kapayapaang kay tagal nating inaasam-asam” (The fruits of peace that we have long cherished are now within reach).
In his 14-minute speech interrupted by applause nine times, the President likened the stage of the peace process now to the “Heartbreak Hill” of the Boston Marathon.
The President’s family lived in exile in Boston for a couple of years during the Marcos dictatorship.
He said on the last mile of the marathon, when the runner already sees the finish line, the terrain goes uphill.
But there is no stopping, he said.
“While nearing the peak of ‘Heartbreak Hill’ there will be more intrigues, more difficult process. But our trust for each other will get us through,” the President said.
He said there is trust and understanding because MILF leaders do not say “what’s in it for me” but “what’s in it for our people?”
“Eh kung ganyan po ang mga numumuno sa atin, eh paano po tayo mapipigilan sa ating pag-asenso at maging kaganapan na po iyong lupa ng pangako ng Mindanao ay maging pangakong nakita na, namalasan na, at talaga namang nangyayari na” (If those who govern are like them, how can we stop progress and the fulfillment of Mindanao, the Land of Promise?)
Aquino said he has three years and four months left before he bows out of office on June 30, 2016.
He said he agrees with Murad that peace should be permanent and not dependent on the persons negotiating now so “kailangan po nating paspasan lahat ng ginagwa natin para nga maging permanente na ito” (we need to work fast so we can make the peace permanent).
Trying to inject humor, the President made a slip when he said he hopes that when his term ends and he’d go on honeymoon, Chairman Murad might invite him for snacks and he will be “turista na sa ARMM” (a tourist in ARMM) because by then it would be a peaceful area.
He must have meant “Bangsamoro,” the new autonomous political entity that the FAB said would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by June 30, 2016.
Representatives of recipients of the Health, Education and Livelihood components under Sajahatra Bangsamoro, received their cards and certificates of eligibility for scholarships , assistance and livelihood projects on stage and had group photos taken with the President and Murad.
Under the Health component, 11,000 members of MILF communities will be given PhilHealth cards with the national government paying for their premium for two years.
The Department of Health will also assist in establishing and upgrading health facilities in target Bangsamoro communities. These communities have yet to be identified.
Under Education, the Commission on Higher Education will award grants to beneficiaries who will pursue college degrees in State Universities and Colleges while the Department of Education will provide mobilization grants to selected madaris and private schools catering to children in Bangsamoro communities, in order to enable schools to prepare for adoption of the Standard Madrasah Curriculum and fulfill requirements for the “Financial Assistance to Madrasah” Program, as provided in DepEd Order 18, series of 2008.
The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) will provide vocational scholarships to identified beneficiaries.
Under the Livelihood component, a needs assessment will be conducted in Bangsamoro communities to determine which livelihood program under the Department of Agriculture and TESDA are “responsive to the needs of target Bangsamoro communities.”
While the needs assessment is going on, a cash for work program will be implemented in the area by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, with community members employed for 10 days per month for three months.
Critics have pointed to these projects as “counter-insurgency” but Peace Process Undersecretary Louie Montalbo told MindaNews that Sajahatra Bangsamoro is “closing the gap between what’s on the negotiating table and what’s on the ground.”
MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal told MindaNews that socio-economic development is part of the FAB.
He said they are “very confident of the correctness” of the program and while acknowledging there are risks, “we cannot do away with it because it’s part of the Framework Agreement.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)