Palace organizes 'biggest event'
MANILA, Philippines – At Malacañang Palace grounds right outside Kalayaan Hall, the oldest structure in the Palace compound, a huge white tent is pitched under the scorching sun.
Presidential Security Group (PSG) members are scattered around the premises as organizers mill around, ensuring that final touches are in place. At 2pm on Wednesday, March 26, Palace officials, organizers and liaisons of guests do a test run of tomorrow's event – the biggest hosted by Malacañang since President Benigno Aquino III first stepped into office.
The preparations for what the Palace calls "a joyous occasion" are understandable. Because on Thursday, the Aquino administration celebrates one of its most significant achievements, if not its most important: the historic signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
After 16 years, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will sign on Thursday, March 27, a final peace agreement that aims to end the decades-old armed struggle in Mindanao.
The Palace refuses to disclose the amount it is spending for the massive event for now, but 1,000 guests from various sectors have been invited to attend the ceremony.
Among them are 500 MILF members, leaders of MILF's rival group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), along with members of traditional royal households, the diplomatic corps, the Congress leaders, congressmen and senators, as well as foreign dignitaries.
To accommodate the Muslim guests, the Palace has also prepared an area inside Kalayaan Hall where they can pray.
One of the most important attendees is Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia brokered the peace talks between the government and the MILF. The Malaysian prime minister had attended the signing of the Framework Agreement in 2012.
Najib's presence – despite Malaysia's current challenge of finding its missing Malaysia Airline plane carrying over 200 passengers – is not lost on the Palace.
"We know for a fact that Malaysia is undergoing a crisis owing to the...disappearance of the Malaysian airplane," Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said on the eve of the signing ceremony.
"Be that as it may, Malaysia is fully aware of its international commitments, and we thank them that despite the difficulty that they’re encountering, that they have accepted our invitation to grace the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro."
Watch this report below.
Lacierda said Malacañang decided to hold the event outdoors to accommodate the number of expected guests. The closest event in terms of scope the Palace has hosted under Aquino's presidency was the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
That event, held on October 15, 2012, took place at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang.
According to Lacierda, however, Rizal Hall can only comfortably accommodate 500 guests. During the signing, he said about 800 guests attended.
"We don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable in very tight premises owing to the fact that we’re expecting more than a thousand," he said. They estimate over 1,500 can be acommodated outside Kalayaan Hall.
Presidential Communications Undersecretary Manuel Luis Quezon III will be the event's emcee, while Secretary Teresita Deles, MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, Najib, and Aquino are expected to speak.
This event will mark the second time that Murad is setting foot in Malacañang. More than a year ago, he was at the presidential palace to sign the Framework Agreement.
The signing is expected to begin at 4 pm, but guests have been told to arrive between 2 and 3 pm. The entire negotiating panels of the government (led by Miriam Coronel Ferrer) and of the MILF (led by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal) will sign the agreement, with Malaysian facilitator Tengku Datu Abdul Ghafar Tengku bin Mohamed signing as witness.
Meanwhile, PSG Commander Raul Ubando said that, because of the magnitude of the guests, the PSG "will deploy additional personnel." He said the PSG has also asked help from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Manila police to help regulate the expected traffic.
In an advisory from the Philippine National Police (PNP), chief PNP spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said they are ready for the signing.
Mayor said the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) in particular is prepared to provide increased security for guests.
The PNP in Metro Manila has been put on full alert status, while other national support units, as well as the national headquarters in Camp Crame, are on heightened alert.
Malacañang said some guests have been pre-cleared, while others will have to undergo security checks upon arrival.
Lacierda said various agencies – like the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), and the Protocol Office – will "send warm bodies [to help in] ushering guests." – Rappler.com