- Special Pages
SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines: Philippine President Benigno Aquino paid a historic visit yesterday to Muslim rebel territory in a bid to speed up efforts to end one of Asia’s longest and deadliest insurgencies.
Four months after his government agreed on a roadmap with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for a final peace deal by 2016, Aquino travelled to the insurgents’ stronghold in the far south as a confidence-building measure.
“We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent,” Aquino said on a stage alongside MILF chief Murad Ebrahim just outside the rebels’ main base.
The deadline for peace coincides with the end of Aquino’s six-year term as president. The constitution limits him to one term and there are concerns that the next president may not be able, or may not want, to pursue the peace agenda.
The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country’s Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.
An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict with Muslim rebels, although a ceasefire in place since 2003 has
In the “framework agreement” signed last October, the MILF said it would give up its quest for independence in exchange for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region covering large parts of Mindanao. Many of the toughest details have yet to be agreed, and there have been no major breakthroughs in ensuing negotiations between the two sides.
However, Aquino expressed confidence that the negotiations would yield significant results within weeks, and that a final peace pact could be achieved
“We’re very close to agreements on all the points,” he said.
The key event yesterday, held just outside the MILF’s heavily fortified Camp Darapanan, was the launch of joint development projects seen by both sides as crucial to the peace process. It was the first peace mission by a president to the MILF’s powerbase.
Then-president Joseph Estrada travelled to the area in 2000 but only at a time of heavy fighting, shortly after government troops overran another base that was then the rebels’ main camp. Estrada infamously brought meat and drinks to the Muslim areas so government troops could celebrate their victory.
Speaking at yesterday’s event, Murad said Aquino’s trip was a highly symbolic and important boost to the peace process.
“Truly we are humbled by this grand gesture of the president of personally launching several socio-economic projects... on this hallowed ground which has seen many of the battles we have fought,” he said. AFP