CAN’T GET ANY MORE ROYAL THAN THIS “Ginakit” boats, which are traditional water vessels used by precolonial Muslim tribal chiefs for royal functions and in visiting their territorial jurisdictions, are the very same boats to welcome President Aquino on his historic visit on Monday to the heartland of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao. Photo coutesy of Cotabato City government.]

COTABATO CITY, FEBRUARY 11, 2013 (INQUIRER) Some 150 motorized boats colorfully decorated and carrying about 2,000 people will greet President Benigno Aquino III when he makes a side trip to this city before proceeding to the headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in nearby Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on Monday.

The boats are taking part in the fluvial parade that will start from Taviran River and go all the way to Kalanganan River here to welcome Mr. Aquino, the first Philippine president to visit an MILF stronghold in peace.

The first President to enter the same MILF camp then named Abubakar (now Camp Darapanan) was Joseph Estrada, but that was after the military had bombed peace out of Mindanao in 2000 under his all-out war policy on the Moro secessionist movement.

Mr. Aquino is visiting the MILF main camp in Sultan Kudarat to launch Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a social development program for the 12,000-strong MILF and Moro communities.

After speaking to residents of Kalanganan village, Mr. Aquino will be sent off by well-wishers, including soldiers and Moro officials, to Camp Darapanan during the fluvial parade.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, speaking for the 6th Infantry Division (ID), said the fluvial parade was actually a military-initiated event and was supposed to be held on Jan. 29. But it was reset for Monday because the President would be in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum annual meeting.

New approach to peace

Hermoso said after his speech, Mr. Aquino would open a football match between soldiers and MILF rebels at the military’s Camp Siongco in Datu Odin, Maguindanao.

“Other sports activities for the day will also be held with participants coming from government offices and other military and police units,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Caesar Ronnie Ordoyo, 6th ID commander, said the fluvial parade and the games were part of the military’s manifestation of support for the peace process.

“This is a new military approach to winning peace,” he said, adding that negotiations, such as those with the MILF, are the most “humane and inexpensive” formula for peace.

Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF political affairs chief, said the MILF believed in the sincerity of only three Philippine presidents in the efforts to resolve the Moro conflict.

He said they were Mr. Aquino, his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, and former President Fidel Ramos.

Jaafar said the Moro people only got the attention they deserved from President Aquino while his mother started the peace negotiations with Moro rebels.

Ramos, on the other hand, signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front and called on the MILF to do the same, he said.

Enough money

Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras announced here on Thursday Mr. Aquino’s visit would be for the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro.

“We have enough money for peace-building,” Almendras said.

Almendras said the government knew that development and progress are not possible without genuine and lasting peace, the reason that it strove for a peace agreement with the MILF.

The government and the MILF signed a preliminary peace deal, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, in Malacañang in August last year.

The final peace agreement will be signed this year after the annexes to the preliminary accord have been finalized.

Strong relationship

“I’m so proud of the people on both sides of the table. The people who are firing guns at each other are now sitting together at one table and talking about how to make this work. That is a victory already,” Almendras said.

Mike Pasigan, MILF spokesperson for Sajahatra Bangsamoro, said the government program was “proof of the strong relationship being built by the government and the MILF toward real and lasting peace and development for the envisioned Bangsamoro region.”

“This is a big confidence-building measure in the peace process. The good relationship between the two parties, if it continues, will definitely lead to lasting peace in which the whole country will benefit,” he said.

Almendras said that under the social development concept, “government agencies are pulling their weight, doing everything that they can” to improve the lives of the Moro people.

He said other groups should not be jealous of the attention the government is giving to the MILF and the Moro communities because the programs being implemented for them, such as Sajahatra Bangsamoro, “will also benefit the entire country.”

“There’s even a time dimension; it will not only benefit the people of today but also the generation that will come after today,” Almendras said.

EU partner in peace process

The Philippines’ international partners in the peace process are helping to push the framework agreement forward.

The European Union is rolling out new development and poverty-easing programs for Mindanao this year in support of the preliminary peace deal between the Aquino administration and the MILF.

Guy Ledoux, ambassador of the EU Delegation in the Philippines, said he was optimistic about the progress of the peace talks following the signing of the preliminary deal last year.

“As far as I know, since the framework agreement was signed, there have been regular talks between the two peace panels in Kuala Lumpur on a monthly basis. I think they are making progress,” Ledoux said in a recent press briefing.

Ledoux said Mindanao will be a priority area in the EU’s allocation of P2 billion in fresh assistance for the Philippines this year.

He said funding for Mindanao would continue for poverty reduction programs in the region, initiated last year through some P300 million in grants funneled through the World Food Programme.

“We have been very much involved in supporting the political process, as well as providing assistance on the island. We aim for peace dividends for all the population and [the EU] is likely to put money in those types of projects,” Ledoux said.

Part of the fresh funds will go to health services, particularly to programs of the Department of Health.

Other donors

The European Union is among the Philippines’ largest donors, second only to Japan, with roughly P5.9 billion in aid disbursements in 2011, 90 percent of which are “direct grants rather than loans.”

This is on top of bilateral aid provided by individual European countries, notably the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.

Spain also provides development aid to Mindanao, particularly for projects in Northern Mindanao and Zamboanga Peninsula, according to Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines Jorge Domecq. With a report from Tarra Quismundo

Green, yellow flags, fluvial procession for Aquino visit By Charlie C. Señase, Edwin O. Fernandez Jeoffrey Maitem Inquirer Mindanao 1:11 am | Monday, February 11th, 2013 1 7 1

COTABATO CITY—It’s all green and yellow from here to Barangay (village) Simuay in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, where President Aquino is visiting the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Monday to promote peace in Mindanao.

Green is the official color of the MILF, while yellow is identified with the President and his mother, the late President Cory Aquino.

A fluvial parade of dozens of colorfully decorated motorboats will welcome Aquino, who will be escorted by a 2,500-strong security force composed of troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and the MILF.

Government forces and MILF guerrillas will also meet in sporting events to mark the first visit in peace by a Philippine leader to the Moro rebels’ stronghold.

Aquino is visiting the main rebel camp to launch with MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim the Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a social development program for the 12,000-strong MILF and Muslim communities.

The President and Murad will hand out social security benefits to impoverished Muslim residents to show their sincerity in furthering the peace process.

On the way to the MILF’s Camp Darapanan, both sides of the main road are lined with colorful bandala (flags) and streamers in green and yellow welcoming the President and his party.

More than 24 Army armored personnel carriers and joint forces from the 40th, 7th and 37th Infantry Battalions have been positioned on all the roads leading to Crossing Simuay, the sentry to Camp Darapanan, the military said.

Some 3,000 uniformed but unarmed MILF fighters will stand side by side with the government troops in securing the highways leading to Crossing Simuay, said Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF chief for political affairs.

Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., the military’s spokesperson, said the joint forces would secure not only the President but all other officials going to Camp Darapanan for the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro.

“In a very significant ceremony where no less than our President is the guest of honor, I think this is the first time that they (the military, the police, and the MILF) are joining forces,” Burgos said.

Besides the three-force security, members of the International Monitoring Team and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities will help secure the visitors, Burgos said.

So far, however, no threats to public security have been monitored, Burgos said. But government security forces continue to monitor the peace situation, he said.

From Cotabato City to Simuay, traffic passes through at least eight checkpoints manned by police and soldiers.

Houses along the highway display green flaglets, signifying support for the MILF in welcoming the President.

Another milestone

Jaafar said the President’s visit would be another milestone in the MILF’s quest for lasting peace.

“We hope his visit will give him the opportunity to see the real picture of the bigger portion of Mindanao, especially Muslim Mindanao where people are deprived and marginalized compared to their brethren in other parts of the island,” Jaafar said.

In 1986, the President’s mother visited Sulu, stronghold of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to meet with the secessionist group’s leader, Nur Misuari.

That presidential visit led to peace negotiations that culminated in the signing of a limited autonomy agreement between the MNLF and the administration of President Fidel Ramos in 1996.

In October last year, President Aquino received Murad in Malacañang and the peace negotiators of the government and the MILF signed a framework agreement for the establishment of a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao as a first step to lasting peace on the island.

In 2000, then President Joseph Estrada entered the captured MILF main camp, Abubakar, in Matanog town, Maguindanao.

Estrada celebrated the fall of Camp Abubakar by feasting on beer and roast pig, both taboo for Muslims.

“This time, the President is coming not for war but for lasting peace. This is historic,” said Mike Pasigan, MILF spokesman for Sajahatra Bangsamoro.

Jaafar said the two Presidents Aquino “have hearts for the Bangsamoro and we recognized that.”

Reciprocal visit

He said he was excited about personally seeing the President again.

“I am as excited as the first meeting when we went to Malacañang last year,” Jaafar said.

He said that in coming to Camp Darapanan, President Aquino is reciprocating Murad’s visit to Malacañang on Oct. 15 last year for the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Aquino, his Cabinet officials, and Murad will meet at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute in Camp Darapanan, which was built with aid from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Jaafar said the event was symbolic of governmental services to be extended to the Moro people. About 300 uniformed but unarmed MILF fighters led by Murad will receive PhilHealth cards, symbolizing the start of governmental health services for for the Bangsamoro people.

Other governmental agencies will also launch services, including education, technical skills training, health and social welfare.

Joining the President for the launch of the services are Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles, Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang, Communication Secretary Herminio Coloma, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, Secretary Lualhati Antonino of the Mindanao Development Authority, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Higher Education Commissioner Patricia Licuanan and Director Joel Villanueva of the Technical Skills Develpment Authority.

Parade and games

After the launching of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, the President is expected to join a fluvial parade for peace on the Rio Grande de Mindanao. The parade is sponsored by the military to show its participation in quest for peace in Mindanao.

Col. Dickson Hermoso of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the government troops and the MILF guerrillas, who once fought each other fiercely, would play “friendly matches” of football, softball and volleyball.

President Aquino himself will kick off the football match between the soldiers and the MILF fighters.

Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tocao Mastura said the mutual ties between the former adversaries should be enhanced even after Monday’s presidential visit.

Boodle fight

On Saturday, government soldiers and MILF guerrillas had a “boodle fight”—eating together at the same table using bare hands—during sendoff ceremonies for those who would secure the President.

“As they say, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We will finally achieve the peace that we have been longing for,” said Gen. Gilberto Jose Roa, chairman of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.—With reports from TJ Burgonio and Marlon Ramos in Manila, and AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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