From the battlefields of Mindanao, Bangsamoro peace pact signed in the gardens of Malacanang

KALAYAAN GARDENS, Malacanan Palace (MindaNews /27 March)  — From the battlefields of Mindanao, the 17-year old peace negotiations between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) formally ended at 5:29 p.m. on Thursday, March 27, with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in the gardens of Malacanang.

“We celebrate today the shared victory of the Bangsamoro and the Filipino people.  The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro finally brings with it the restoration of the identity, powers and resources of the Bangsamoro. These three things which have been ours since time immemorial, unjustly taken through colonization and occupation, are now returned to us,” Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told the crowd of over a thousand guests from government and the MILF, civil society, diplomatic community, religious leaders, indigenous peoples and ‘bakwits’ (internally displaced peoples).

The CAB is the “crowning glory of our struggle… to find the final answer to the Bangsamoro Question,” a negotiated political agreement “that not only promises but guarantees mutual recognition, respect and restoration of the legitimate rights of the people in the Bangsamoro,” he said.

Murad was long-time MILF vice chair for Military Affairs and Chief of Staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) who concurrently served as MILF peace panel chair when the peace talks resumed in 2001 following the “all-out war” declared by the Estrada administration in 2000. Murad assumed the post of  MILF chair following the death of founding chair Salamat Hashim in July 2003.

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, who personally sought a meeting with Murad in Japan on August 4, 2011 to fast-track the peace process, called on the Filipino people to “widen the avenues for trust and positive engagement,” to “cast aside past prejudices, and contribute to the atmosphere of optimism that has, for the first time in a long while, become prevalent in Muslim Mindanao.”

“It should be the paramount concern of all people of goodwill to do their part: Let us exchange our bullets for ripening fruit, our cynicism for hope, our histories of sorrow for a future of harmony, peace, and prosperity,” the President said.

From the battlefields of Mindanao to the gardens of Malacanang where the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed on Thursday, March 27. Photo by Julius Mariveles / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
From the battlefields of Mindanao to the gardens of Malacanang where the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed on Thursday, March 27. Photo by Julius Mariveles / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Promise of a better future

Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sir Mohd Najib Bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, whose country has been facilitating the GPH-MILF peace talks since 2001, noted that in signing the  CAB,“the two sides have looked not to the problems of the past, but to the promise of the future.”

“After so many years of conflict, and so many lives lost, it is a momentous act of courage. And it will change their nation’s history,” he said.

“Both sides have sacrificed, so that the people of the southern Philippines may live free; free from the violence which tore so many families apart. Free from the suffering caused by decades of conflict.  Free from fear. In the pages of this agreement, we see the promise of a better future. A future where classrooms ring with laughter, not gunshots. Where young men fight poverty, not each other. Where people work hand-in-hand to build a new consensus, and a new identity: the Bangsamoro,” he said.

In her welcome remarks, Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, said, “we stand here today to declare that, henceforth, no family shall be forced to drive their children away for fear of their being maimed and wounded by conflict; and that no child has to cross a raging river and knock on a stranger’s door to beg for protection.”

“No more war, no more children scampering for safety, no more evacuees, no more lost schooldays or school-months, no more injustice, no more misgovernance, no more poverty, no more fear and no more want. Tama na, we are all tired of it. A new dawn has come, the dawn for books, not bullets; for paintbrushes, not knives; for whole communities, not evacuation centers; and for rewarding toil, not endless strife,” she added.

17 years, 17 months

At 5:29 p.m., GPH peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal,  with Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, signed the CAB, a document containing 12 agreements entered into by the GPH and MILF including the  Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities in July 1997,  and the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and its four annexes – Power-sharing, Wealth-sharing, Normalization and Transitional Arrangements and Modalities, and the addendum on Bangsamoro waters.

The signing of the CAB came 17 months and 12 days after the signing of the FAB at the Rizal Hall also in Malacanan Palace, on a table covered with the same cloth when Iqbal, Tengku and then GPH peace panel chair Marvic Leonen (now Supreme Court Associate Justice) signed the FAB on October 15, 2012.

Serving as backdrop to the CAB signing onstage was a sky blue panel with symbolic white doves converging towards a huge Presidential seal.

Curiously, despite the presence of  religious leaders like Mindanao’s first Cardinal, Orlando Quevedo, Bishop Efraim M. Tendero of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches and several Muslim religious leaders and IP ritual leaders, the 90-minute signing ceremonies did not begin with prayers (the FAB signing did).  None of them was asked to do the opening prayers.

Under the FAB, both parties agreed that the status quo was unacceptable and that they would work for the creation of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro, that would replace the 24-year old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The future Bangsamoro government would be a ministerial form of government.

The FAB also provided for the creation of a 15-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) tasked to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BTC).

The BTC commissioners led by MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, were named in February 2013 and are supposed to submit the draft BBL to President Aquino on March 31, four days from the signing March 31.

From military force to political entity

Once submitted to Congress, the President will certify the proposed bill as urgent. After Congress passes the law, it will be subjected to a plebiscite and once ratified, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) will take over to prepare for the first election in May 2016.

By June 30, 2016, the day President Aquino steps down as President, the  first elected officials of the Bangsamoro are expected to take their oath of office.

“I expect the deliberations in Congress to be characterized by a sincere desire to improve on the Bangsamoro Basic Law—and not by self-interest that only aims to perpetuate an untenable status quo,” Aquino said.

Speaking of his vision for the Bangsamoro, the President said: “If we sustain the momentum for peace, by 2016, the MILF will have shed its identity as a military force, and transformed itself into a political entity, casting its stake in democracy by vying for seats in the Bangsamoro elections. The Bangsamoro shall form a perimeter of vigilance against the spread of extremism; it shall act as a bridge of moderation among the great faiths of the various constituencies in ASEAN. From this shared security, we shall enhance the era of prosperity that is dawning upon our region, and harness its energies towards creating a regime of opportunity and inclusivity where no one is left behind.”


Murad explained that the “only” interest of the MILF is the “emplacement of the system as agreed upon by the parties.”

“Upon the establishment of the new Bangsamoro Political Entity, the role of the MILF may be likened only to a gatekeeper for the duration of the transition period, where after such period the keys to the gate will be willingly handed over to the democratic will of the Bangsamoro. To be overly emphatic, it will not be a government of the MILF, but the government of the Bangsamoro,” Murad said.

Murad acknowledged that the CAB is built on the gains of previous agreements entered into by Moro liberation movements in the past.

“The MILF recognizes as a milestone the 1996 GRP-MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front)  Final Peace Agreement, but its inherent flaws, weaknesses and fate for the last 18 years must not hinder the MILF from securing for the Bangsamoro a far better negotiated political settlement of the Bangsamoro Question,” Murad said, adding that the CAB is not only for the MILF. “It is for the MNLF as well, as much as it is for all the Muslim ethnic tribes, the Christian settlers and the Indigenous Peoples in the prospective Bangsamoro government and territory,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)