‘No more war. We are tired of it.’

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, more than 500 MILF members and hundreds of other guests witness the signing of the peace deal between the Aquino government and the MILF

HISTORIC. President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chairman Ibrahim Murad meet on Thursday, March 27. Photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – More than a year after signing an initial peace framework, Philippine government officials and Muslim rebels once again meet in the country’s seat of power to sign a peace agreement that is seen to end decades of armed conflict and create a new political entity in the Bangsamoro region.

“No more war. No more children scampering for safety. No more evacuees. No more injustice. No more poverty. Tama na,” Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles said at the opening of the signing ceremony in Malacañang on Thursday afternoon, March 27. “We are tired of it.”

As close to 500 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members gathered in Malacañang, along with dignitaries such as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Deles thanked President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim for pushing the peace process forward. (READ: ‘This is the crowing glory of our struggle’)

To Murad, Deles said: “We salute your tenacity in leading the MILF to war, and now to peace.”

To President Aquino, Deles said: “We could not have made it without you Mr. President. Everybody knows that.”

Hailed as historic on all fronts, the Aquino government and the MILF agreed on the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. The deal ends 17 years of intense negotiations under 4 Philippine presidents and aims to stop 4 decades of armed conflict in Mindanao that has claimed the lives of about 120,000 people. 

A new political entity replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will soon rise in Mindanao – sealing the partnership between erstwhile bitter foes.

“This achievement is one for a lifetime. Imagine this agreement was only signed after more than 16 long years of off-and-on battles in the negotiating table,” the MILF said in a post on Luwaran, its official website. (READ: TIMELINE: The long road to the Bangsamoro region)

MILF troops at Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao – the MILF’s main headquarters – will listen to the ceremonies through speakers blasting  broadcasts over the radio. The signing of the peace deal will also be shown live in various locations across the ARMM.

In central Mindanao, the military is preparing to transform their military camp in Maguindanao into a “people’s camp,” said Colonel Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division. “We wanted to show that this camp is not exclusive but a place where anyone can enter without any worries,” Hermoso said.

The camp, which served as the house of soldiers, cannons, choppers, planes and tanks, has now cleared most of its space to give way to a park including a playground, big trees, benches and a coffee shop.

Malacañang itself said it is its biggest event so far.

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.

Watch Deles’ speech below.

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.

Peace deal 

The final peace pact consolidates the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro political entity, and complementary deals on how wealth and power will be shared between the Bangsamoro ang central government; how the ARMM will transition into the Bangsamoro; and commitments on the laying down of firearms towards a post-conflict scenario. 

On Thursday, the government and the MILF will release the 5-page, 12 point comprehensive agreement formalizing the end of the armed struggle for the MILF. 

Under the firearms pact, the MILF agrees to lay down its arms to a third-party group in specific phases as the government fulfills its parallel commitment to redeploy excess military troops in the area and lead the disbandment of private armed groups. 

'BEYOND USE.' Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Photo by Agence France-Presse

As it abandons the armed struggle, the MILF is set to transform into a social movement. Soon, the MILF will finish establishing a political party that would enable it to participate in the 2016 elections. (READ: What’s next for MILF after peace deal?)

Under the pact, the new Bangsamoro political entity will enjoy greater powers and wider fiscal autonomy than the ARMM, which has been earlier branded by President Benigno Aquino III himself as a “failed experiment.”

A government structure never before seen in the country will be established. Replacing the ARMM is a ministerial form of government, where members of the Bangsamoro Assembly elected by the people elect a chief minister within themselves. (READ: Gov’t, MILF agree on power sharing)

The new government will get its funding primarily through “automatic block grants” similar but separate from the internal revenue allotment of local government units, doing away with the need for Congress approval. How the appropriations will be calculated will be included in the Bangsamoro Basic Law. (READ: Bangsamoro gets 75% of natural resources)

The deal also gives rise to new wealth and power-sharing arrangements on water territories within the Bangsamoro – one of the most contentious topics during the talks. 

Reality check

The government and the MILF have less than two years left to implement the peace deal. Both sides want to finish the transition towards the Bangsamoro before Aquino steps down in 2016. 

With the signing of the peace pact, the focus of the peace process shifts towards the next immediate stop in the roadmap: the crafting and passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress. 

The Transition Commission – also led by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal – is racing to beat the deadline of submitting the draft to Malacañang by the end of March or early April.

Once the draft law – to be certified as urgent by the President – is submitted to Congress, its approval will now depend on lawmakers, some of whom staunchly oppose the peace deal and are critics of the Aquino administration.

The President however is expected to crack the whip on the majority coalition in both chambers, to ensure the law is signed this year.

Once the law is passed, a plebiscite in identified areas will be held. The interim Bangsamoro Transition Authority will take over until the election of officials in May 2016, which is the scheduled presidential and local elections.

All this while the former guerrillas are in the process of decomissioning their weapons.

Amid concerns that the transition phase is too short, the government has said there is no Plan B. “We have to try [and make it work],” Ferrer earlier said. “There is no other option but to try.” – with reports from Karlos Manlupig/Rappler.com