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SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao, Philippines – The turnover of weapons by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) should give the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) a much-needed boost, President Aquino said.
The President was here to witness the turnover of assorted firearms by the MILF to an independent decommissioning body in accordance with conditions set in the initial peace agreement between the government and the Muslim rebel group.
It was Aquino’s first time to set foot in Maguindanao since the Jan. 25 killing of 44 police Special Action Force commandos in Mamasapano by MILF guerrillas.
The President, in a speech, rallied public support for the BBL, saying such would be an articulation of Filipino Muslims’ dream of leading peaceful and normal lives.
He also appealed to detractors of the BBL to reconsider their stand on the controversial measure.
“This is why today is truly historic. Years ago, an armed group that had long been fighting with government laying down its arms was a pipe dream,” he said.
He said the MILF gesture was not merely ceremonial, as the weapons surrendered were of the “highest grade” that “can cause – and have truly already caused – extreme suffering.”
Aquino delivered his speech at the old Maguindanao provincial capitol in Simuay town.
The United Kingdom, through British Charge d’Affaires Trevor Lewis, welcomed the development.
“The decommissioning of 50 high-powered and 25 crew-mounted weapons, and transition to civilian life of 145 Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, is a significant and welcome step in the peace process,” Lewis said.
“As with any peace process, the process of normalization is linked to political milestones, the next of which will be the passage of legislation to make the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro a reality,” he added.
Aquino, in his speech, said the Muslim rebels’ gesture “is the concrete proof of their sincerity” to adhere to the peace process.
“Our brothers are voluntarily laying down their arms. They are fully aware of the threats to their own safety brought about by private armed groups, but they are doing this nonetheless; they are telling us: ‘Brother, this weapon that I used to defend myself, I no longer need it. I wholeheartedly entrust my safety to you. Brother, I lay these weapons down today, because I believe that, like me, you are determined to transform our society and our very lives’,” the President said.
He also called the turnover of the weapons “a solid testament to the unreserved and honest participation” of the MILF in the peace process” and to its readiness to abandon violence.
♣ Potshots at critics
Aquino said it was unfortunate that some “esteemed lawmakers” responded to the peace invitation by calling for a halt to the BBL.
“Instead of asking: ‘How can I improve the BBL so that it may effectively address the grievances of our countrymen,’ it appears they ask, ‘How can I stop or block the passage of this bill?’” the President said.
Aquino said every Filipino should ask himself whether it would be good to step back from the path to peace without bothering his conscience.
“If there are 10 steps between us, steps we must take to become closer to one another, and they have already taken nine and a half steps – would you still deprive them of that last half-step?”
He said those subverting peace would have to answer for the consequence. “If, in obstructing the best solution, you arrive at the point in which your family is affected, would you be able to face them and say, ‘Sorry, this happened because I kept us from realizing peace’.”
He said there is no point clinging to “baseless fears” and “unfounded suspicion” as turning back for such reason would be like changing your mind on your wedding day or quitting the Boston marathon upon approaching Heartbreak Hill.
The President said the truth is that Muslim Filipinos were not asking for something unreasonable as they, like what every Filipino desires, only want decent and peaceful lives.
“We also need to admit that we have had our own shortcomings. It is not written in our religion or laws that we should perpetuate the ills of the past,” he said.
Saying he is “personally investing” time and effort for the BBL, Aquino revealed a “meeting of the minds” with lawmakers to resolve some concerns. The meeting, he said, lasted until the next morning. “What we want is to truly refine this law.”
♣ Speak up for BBL
In his speech, Aquino sought the people’s help in repaying the trust that the MILF had shown by taking the difficult step of laying down arms and getting decommissioned.
“Here, I remember the words of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis: ‘First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists, but I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me,’” Aquino said.
“Indeed: When you allow the rights of others to be abused, is it not true that you agree to the perpetuation of this cycle, until the day comes when you yourself may become a victim of it.”
The President said the MILF’s gesture was something many Filipinos could not have imagined.
“I believe that the process will only become easier from this point… Let us strive to reach the point in which we can say: We truly gave them every opportunity to change their lives and to reach their dreams,” he said.
Aquino said blocking the passage of BBL would be “willfully” depriving Mindanao Muslims of “what should be theirs” and “ensuring that they have no opportunity to uplift themselves.”
He added that junking the BBL is “guaranteeing that they will never lay down their arms and leave conflict and struggle behind. That is the equivalent of opposing the BBL.”
He said detractors of the BBL cannot claim to be advocates of peace. “It is as if you are still not content with making the law pass through the eyes of nine needles, that you will add a tenth and an eleventh; it is as if you have no other goal than to ensure that there is no space for peace,” he said.
Aquino reminded the nation that the conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced scores of others.
“If you will not side with peace, how many more will lose their loved ones? How many more communities will find themselves trapped in the crossfire, lacking security? How many who are already suffering will suffer even more? How long before conflict knocks on your door, and involves even your family?” he said.
“We cannot deny: We have a debt to our brothers and sisters in the Bangsamoro. Now, we have the chance to right the narrative of suffering together,” he pointed out. “Though we may come from different contexts and hold different beliefs, because we have been brought together by trust and by care for one another, there is no challenge that we cannot surpass as one nation.”
♣ No military solution
The Chief Executive also stressed that a military solution would never bring peace and development in Mindanao but would only complicate matters like what happened before.
The President explained that violence in Mindanao was sparked by conflict over land as opportunists took advantage of the uneducated landowners.
“This was what prompted our Moro brothers to fight for what was justly theirs. My question: if abuse of the law was the root of the problem, is it not appropriate that the solution be a law that recognizes the rights and the culture of our Muslim brothers and sisters? It would have been more appropriate if the government’s response to our countrymen’s plea back then had been something akin to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, which we now have,” he said.
After decades of armed conflict, he said no less than the Armed Forces of the Philippines has realized and declared that the solution to the conflict would need a “whole-of-government approach.”
“We need legitimate responses to legitimate grievances; we need to help our brothers and sisters in the margins to achieve true justice,” Aquino said.
The President also emphasized the need for confidence building measures to make a peace accord acceptable to everyone.
He recalled the example of former military chief Emmanuel Bautista whose father – also a military general – was killed by Muslim rebels who had tricked him into attending a supposed peace negotiation.
“In such a situation, how will we reach an agreement acceptable to all when the negotiators themselves do not trust each other? I was even of the notion that a true dialogue would only be possible after multiple generations,” Aquino said.
“In fact, one of the proposals was to have an exchange of students. There would be students from Mindanao who will study in Luzon and the Visayas; and there would be students from Luzon and the Visayas who would study in Mindanao,” he added.
“This is a long process, and it is likely that the results will not be witnessed by people my age,” he said.
♣ Proof of sincerity
By laying down its arms – though symbolically – the MILF has proven its sincerity and commitment to lasting peace, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Mujiv Hataman said.
“Today, we will witness the Moro Islamic Liberation Front symbolically lay down their arms to show their commitment to establishing a lasting peace in Mindanao. This is the act of peace, the show of sincerity in the peace process, that we have all been waiting for from the MILF and the government,” Hataman said before the ceremonial turnover of assorted MILF weapons to an independent decommissioning body.
He called the President’s visit to Sultan Kudarat, his third as Chief Executive, the “most historic.”
“The MILF will beat swords to ploughshares as soldiers will begin to bring life to the land instead of taking from it,” he said.
“Today, mothers will begin to send their children to school again without fear, and welcome them home happily. Today, children will start learning to be children, and hope never to learn about war again,” Hataman said.
“We silence the guns today and our voices will drown the songs of war; our voice will echo the calls for peace. We have been doing so for the past 17 years, culminating in a document we now know as the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” he said.
“This law, the fruit of many legal minds, both Moro and non-Moro, will be the rock on which lasting peace and eventual economic progress in Mindanao can be built,” the governor said.
He said the BBL has undergone difficult times and is poised for an “obstacle race” in the Senate.
“We pray that this race will soon end and the BBL be hailed as victorious,” Hataman said.
He also lauded the government and the MILF peace panels for vigorously pushing for peace amid an environment of distrust. “The President, who has been its champion since its inception, will do everything possible for the BBL to come to fruition.”
♣ Lawmakers elated
For some congressmen, yesterday’s development may be the start of lasting peace in Mindanao.
“This is a very welcome development for me as a member of Congress tackling the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and personally as a Mindanaonon,” Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who chairs the House ad hoc committee on the BBL, said.
“The beginning of the decommissioning process is concrete proof of the strong commitment of the MILF to end armed conflict in the south,” he said.
Misamis Occidental Rep. Henry Oaminal said the start of the MILF decommissioning shows the group’s resolve to participate in elections if the draft BBL is passed.
“There is perhaps no greater proof that the MILF is sincere in its efforts to begin peace-building with the government than this decision to voluntarily turn over their arms and weapons,” he said.
He said the disbanding of MILF forces would be gradual, “but we are confident there is no stopping this process in the coming months.”
“I hope that Congress moves with urgency on the proposed BBL because the decommissioning process will move much faster with the passage and ratification of the bill, and combatants on the ground will be able to return to civilian lives much sooner,” he added.
Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong said the MILF’s decision to begin decommissioning “is a clear message to both the Senate and the House of Representatives that it is a trustworthy partner in the peace talks.”
“We should all understand the security situation. There are still other armed groups with weapons on the ground, yet the MILF is already willing to begin decommissioning for the sake of peace in Mindanao,” he said.
Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, for his part, said the decommissioning process “must be thorough and swift,” in order “for the people to really trust the MILF.”
He said the current disarmament process is slow and would likely be overtaken by the passage of the BBL.
He said if the government and MILF schedules will be followed, the rebel group will have over 35 percent of its declared weapons with them and intact when the new region is established. With Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Jose Rodel Clapano, Edith Regalado, Pia Lee-Brago, John Unson.