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Aquino pursues peace deal with rebels

Benigno Aquino (right) sharing candies with MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim during a visit to the rebel stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, in the southern island of Mindanao, yesterday. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)

Publication Date : 12-02-2013


Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday made a landmark visit to a Muslim rebel stronghold in the troubled south in a push for a promising peace process that could end one of Asia's longest insurgencies.

Unarmed guerillas in combat fatigues welcomed Aquino at the launch of a government programme to provide health, education and other services to rebel communities of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which, with about 12,000 guerillas, is the country's largest Muslim insurgent group.

With MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim at his side, Aquino, speaking in a rebel community in Sultan Kudarat on Mindanao island, underscored the urgency of achieving a final peace accord before his term ends in mid-2016.

"We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent," he said. "This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint."

Murad stressed that "durable peace" is needed before development efforts can properly get under way. Aquino agreed.

Mindanao's Muslim-dominated provinces - parts of which have become hotbeds of lawlessness and extremism - are among the poorest in the country.

In a demonstration that MILF rebels and government forces are at peace, teams from both sides played a football friendly during Aquino's visit. Football was chosen rather than basketball, the nation's favourite sport, to avoid competition between the two becoming too intense.

The previous visit of a Philippine president to an MILF stronghold was in 2000, when former leader Joseph Estrada launched an offensive. According to some reports, government troops feasted provocatively on roast pork in the fallen Muslim camp.

But neither military force nor peace efforts managed to end a separatist insurgency that has cost 150,000 lives since fighting first flared in the early 1970s.

"Aquino is going all out to secure a peace agreement with the rebels; it's very much a legacy issue for him," says political science professor Benito Lim.

A visit in 1986 to another Muslim rebel group by Aquino's mother when she was president paved the way for the creation a decade later of an autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao. But it failed to bring lasting peace and improve the lives of around four million Filipino Muslims.

Under a ceasefire agreement, MILF and the government have been in talks for several years on a final peace accord to grant Muslims greater self-governance.

A breakthrough came last October when Aquino met the MILF leader in Manila to sign a framework peace agreement to create a new Muslim homeland.

Whether Aquino can reel in a deal depends on whether he gets support, especially from Christian politicians in Mindanao, said Prof Lim. But, close to halfway through his term in office, Aquino faces no major opposition.

Commentators say a pact will probably not succeed unless it includes substantial economic and development measures.

"It's not enough that resources are made available," said Senator Loren Legarda. "Resources must be translated into jobs, livelihoods, food, education, health care and welfare."


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