Philippine President Benigno Aquino met Thursday night with the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), amid peace negotiations between the two sides. It was the first time a Filipino president met with the head of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.
Government negotiators say the two hour meeting in a Tokyo suburb was cordial and both sides agreed on a need to fast-track peace negotiations. Philippine chief negotiator Marvic Leonen says he counted three instances in which the rebel Chairman Murad Ebrahim said his group was confident in the president’s sincerity.
“I was in the room. I was the note-taker and I saw there was certain chemistry between the chair of the MILF and that of the president. Our president was able to bring the chair of the MILF at ease and the exchange was quite candid, without, of course, the raising of voices. They understood many points of view,” Leonen explained.
He says only the president, the chairman and the heads of each side’s peace panels were present. At a news briefing Friday he gave few details on what exactly was discussed, only that there were many points the negotiating panels will flesh out. He emphasized that the Muslim group came to the meeting not as separatists but as Filipinos.
“We are not considering this as a separatist movement because the agenda on the table no longer includes independence and they have said it so," he said. "The MILF has conducted press briefings, the MILF has met with the business community here in Makati and the MILF has met with civil society groups and they say their agenda is no longer to separate from the Republic of Philippines.”
Instead, Leonen says they want a sub-state in which they remain Filipino citizens but keep their Muslim identity. In their primary document submitted to the Aquino peace panel in February, the MILF scaled back their land claims.
In a statement the MILF called the meeting “very cordial, frank, honest and intimate.” The group also said it was an important milestone in their struggle for self-determination.
For more than three decades, Muslim rebel groups in the southern Philippines have been fighting the government. More than 120,000 people have died as a result and more than a million people have been displaced. The MILF is the largest rebel group with more than 10,000 members.
Over the years, talks have broken down repeatedly between the government and the rebels. The Aquino administration has signaled its intent to forge peace in the resource-rich region in an effort to attract more foreign investment to the country.
The next meeting between negotiators will be in two weeks.