MANILA - The Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group have signed an initial peace agreement that they hope will end a 40-year insurgency that has left more than 120,000 people dead. Although the agreement has wide support, it faces opposition from the former leader of a smaller group.
In a packed hall inside the presidential palace in the capital, Manila, Moro Islamic Liberation Front Chairman Murad Ebrahim said the group had “inked the most important document” in its history. The 60-something year-old Murad remarked that he himself was making history.
“Never in my wildest dream, since I was a child or when I joined the Bangsamoro struggle more than 40 years ago, that one day I will see the interior of this building,” said Ibrahim.
Insurgents have seen the palace as a symbol of central government, which they long believed was remote, uncaring and distant. Murad said, after nearly 16 years of on again / off again negotiations marred by violence, the preliminary agreement puts the MILF on track to restoring the people in the region to their “Bangsamoro” identity and claiming their homeland.
Bangsamoro is a term coined by the rebels that identifies all natives of that part of Mindanao in the south, regardless of faith. The preliminary agreement calls for creating a Bangsamoro region that will have the power to create its own sources of revenue and wealth-sharing plans.
A number of foreign governments hailed the agreement with commitments to help develop the area.
But the leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, which forged its own peace deal in 1996, is reported to have called the framework agreement a conspiracy between the Philippines and Malaysia, which has served as peace mediator. The front’s former chairman, Nur Misuari, said it could lead to another crisis and war in Mindanao. He could not be reached by phone but an aide said he will “definitely not be going [to the peace signing], to which he is opposed.”
The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1977. The 11,000-strong Islamic Liberation Front became the larger of the two and fought on beyond the MNLF’s agreement.
After Monday's signing ceremony, government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen said this is a “golden opportunity” for all leaders of rebel groups to work together to form the governing principles of the Bangsamoro region.
“As far as we’re concerned it is possible to jive and harmonize the commitments that we have made to the MNLF - only the commitments that we have made to the MNLF - with the commitments that we are now making with the MILF,” said Leonen.
In his speech, Murad appealed to the MNLF leadership. He said it was not the time for recriminations but for unity and the “time to think, act and speak as one Bangsamoro…”
The negotiators of both parties say they expect to have the final peace accord before the end of the year. Their goal is to have the new region ready to fully function by 2016.