PEACETALK: Ask questions. Propose solutions. The future is yours. You have a stake in it.

[Acceptance speech of Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF Peace Panel and Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), of the Fr. William Francis Masterson, SJ Award of the Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City on March 26, 2015]

Father Roberto C. Yap, President of Xavier University, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, honored guests, graduates and their proud parents, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

It is truly a distinct honor for me to receive this Fr. William Francis Masterson SJ Award. It is truly exciting that I am one of those awardees this morning. I promise you, I will not fail you, God willing!

I am aware of the difficulty and the conversations that ensued within your community as a consequence of your decision for conferring this award.

Frankly speaking, since I was informed of this award, I have never stopped asking myself whether or not I am worthy of this recognition. Reading on the life and work of Fr. Masterson who was a man of exceptional foresight that even the great General Douglas MacArthur was said to have invited him to Manila to set up a relief program for children that distributed medicine, clothing and food stuffs, one can feel a little bit awed. I am however consoled by the fact we share the same sentiments when he once said that we had no right to exist unless we immersed ourselves in the problems of our milieu.

I guess that this is the challenge to every one of us who had the opportunity to go to school. That once we have acquired the rudimentary skills and knowledge in school, we should all immerse ourselves in the problems of our times. For what good is education if not to solve the more complex problems of our times.

Looking back at my own personal journey, after I defended my thesis and awarded my master’s degree in political science in 1972, I went straight to immerse myself in the milieu of my time: the Bangsamoro problem.

I headed straight into the jungle and joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Initially, I was a foot soldier and then rose to become a political officer. We even were forced to not to use our legal names and use aliases to protect our families and friends from retaliation and retribution by the Martial Law regime. Our goal however was fundamental: to defend the lives and properties of the Moros, who were then already the object a genocidal campaign by the Martial Law regime in Manila.

To go to the forest and take up arms was not an easy decision to make. It was not for sheer desire of adventure or the need for limelight and fame that pushed me to barter a life of safety in the city to one that is laden with dangers in the jungle. On at least three occasions that I had a brush with death. On the lighter side, food was scarce and at times none at all. At one time, my group and I had to survive by eating “kangkong” for three straight days, because we were sealed off to the outside by government troops.

Furthermore, it was not bravery that made me stay to this day in the service of the MILF. It was rather my commitment to the cause of my people for deliverance that made me persevere in all those four decades of trials and tribulations.

In the beginning, the word “peace” was never part of the vocabulary of the day. Of course, as a Muslim, I know the value of peace, because it is ingrained in Islam, which means “peace”. I knew also that war is temporary, because man is necessarily peaceful.

At that time, the only things the government offered to us were bullets and bombs or surrender. By then thousands of Moros had already died in the hands of state forces and their paramilitary allies. This started from the massacre of 64 Moro trainees in Corregidor Island in March 1968 to the onslaught of the so-called fanatic group called Ilagas (rats) in 1970 to 1971. These mass slaughters worsened since the declaration of Martial Law in September 1972 and onward.

It is true that peace negotiations had commenced as early as 1975 that led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in Tripoli, Libya the following year. This culminated in 1996 when the GRP-MNLF Final Agreement on Peace was signed between the government and MNLF. But judging from what had ensued therefrom, those agreements were not meant to solve the armed conflict in Mindanao and secure permanent peace therein but rather they were used to perpetuate the effective strangulation of the Moros.

In the case of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to which organization I belonged to since 1977, we waited for 20 long years before it had the chance to talk peace with the government. This happened in January 1997 when President Fidel Ramos offered the olive branch of peace to the MILF. Perhaps unknown to most of you, the ceasefire agreement was signed here in Cagayan de Oro City on July 18, 1997.

Frankly speaking, peace negotiation is not an easy endeavor. The truth is that it is easy to make war than to make peace. In war, one party can start war but in peace-making, it requires both parties to agree to talk.

The GPH-MILF peace negotiation, interspersed with fighting and three major wars, 2000, 2003 and 2008, has dragged on for 17 long and hard years. It encompassed four presidents (Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, and now Aquino), 11 government peace negotiators, and about 100 or so signed documents.

Is this too short a period and easy engagement that many people including some legislators can easily call for a new negotiation? The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is a solution that came out of 17 years of negotiations and problem solving. Should we disregard history and the long and hard work put into crafting the BBL? These are tough questions which every Filipino and Bangsamoro must answer in the next few days.

And all of these work, commitment and sacrifice are for people like you. Come to think of it, my dear graduates! It is you, the youth and young of today, who will reap the fruits of peace in the future. It is not us, your elders, who will benefit from this. I urge you, therefore, to join our journey of peace! Speak up and be heard! Ask questions. Propose solutions. The future is yours. You have a stake in it.

Finally, let me say once again my heartfelt gratitude for this recognition of our efforts at building peace. I say “our” because while I personally accept this award, I accept this on behalf of all those who seek and strive for peace — both Bangsamoro and Filipino. Peacemaking is never a one man’s effort. It is the collective effort of men and women of good will who seek a better and peaceful future for the next generation.

To end, let me paraphrase a quote from Thomas Paine:

“We fight not to enslave, but to set a nation free and to make room upon the earth for honest men and women to live.”

As you graduate from formal schooling this morning, let that be our common resolve: not to enslave but to make space for honest men, women and children to live their lives in peace, in abundance, in faith.

Thank you very much and good morning to all.