‘This is the crowning glory of our struggle’

Angela Casauay
(3rd UPDATE) The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front sign the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro on Thursday, March 27

CELEBRATION. MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim speaks during the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in Malacañang on March 27, 2014.

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) described the peace agreement with the Aquino government as the “crowning glory of our struggle” but stressed that his organization does not claim “sole ownership” of what has been achieved.

“The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) is the restoration of the identity, powers and resources of the Bangsamoro,” MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad said at the ceremony for the signing of the CAB in Malacañang on Thursday, March 27.

Both parties signed the 5-page agreement at around 5:30pm Thursday. 

Read the full text of the agreement here.

Watch the signing below.

The negotiating panels of the government (led by Miriam Coronel Ferrer) and the MILF (led by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal) signed the agreement, with Malaysian facilitator Tengku Datu Abdul Ghafar Tengku bin Mohamed signing as witness.

Prime Minister Najib Razak witnessed the signing; Malaysia brokered the talks. (READ: Najib: Today, we turn to face the light)

In his speech before the signing, President Benigno Aquino III said: “I will not let peace be snatched from my people again. Not now when we have already undertaken the most significant steps to achieve it.” (READ: Peace won’t be snatched from my people again’)

In his speech, Murad stressed the inclusive nature of the peace deal, praising rival organization Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) for the 1996 peace agreement that it signed with the Ramos administration. The MNLF has protested the peace process between the government and the MILF, saying the 1996 deal had yet to be fully implemented.

In September 2013, followers of MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari seized Zamboanga City to dramatize their opposition to the talks. 

But in his speech, Murad reassured the MNLF that it will be part of the future Bangsamoro region. “The MILF recognizes as a milestone the 1996 final peace agreement but its inherent flaws must not hinder the MILF from securing for the Bangsamoro a far better negotiated political settlement,” Murad said. (READ: The long road to the Bangsamoro)

‘It’s not the MILF government’

“The role of the MILF may be likened to a gatekeeper for the transition – then after the keys will be democratically handed over to the Bangsamoro,” Murad said. 

“To be overly emphatic, it’s not the government of the MILF but the government of the Bangsamoro,” he added. 

The CAB aims to give rise to a new political entity in Mindanao with greater powers and wider fiscal autonomy than the region it will replace – the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Murad said the agreement marks the “grandest articulation” of their aspiration, making the need for armed struggle extinct. 

Under the peace deal, the MILF agreed to lay down their arms to a third party in specific phases as the government fulfills its parallel commitment to lead the disbandment of private armed groups and redeploy military troops. 

Murad also paid tribute to many Muslim rebels who died during the more than 4 decades of conflict in Mindanao, making an emotional mention of MILF founding chairman Hashim Salamat, who died in 2003. 

Amid the euphoria over the signing, Murad reminded all parties that the agreement will not be implemented “automatically.” (READ: Normalization, decommissioning)

“The signing of the CAB marks the start of another struggle to ensure that the terms of the agreement will be implemented and instrumental in the lives of the Bangsamoro.”

“We strongly pray for an accepting and not merely tolerating public that will give support for this monumental agreement,” he said. (WATCH: AS IT HAPPENS: Signing of the Bangsamoro)

Read the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro here:

  Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro

Firearms ‘beyond use’

The agreement compels the MILF to put their firearms “beyond use.” Both sides are careful not to term it surrender. An Independent Decommissioning Body will be tasked to recommend the most appropriate manner of dealing with rebel firearms after conducting an inventory and verifying the weapons and members of MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). (READ: The Bangsamoro peace deal)

The government and the MILF have considered examples around the world, such as the Irish Republican Army model, where firearms were stored in a warehouse. The MILF, however, has ruled out the destruction of weapons.

The decommissioning will coincide with parallel commitments from the government to redeploy armed and police forces in Mindanao and lead the disbandment of private armed groups.  

The Transition Commission, led by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, is expected to submit to Malacañang the draft version of the Basic Law that will serve as the legal basis for the Bangsamoro.

The draft bill will be certified as urgent by the president once it is submitted to Congress. 

Aquino needs to convince Congress to pass it ideally by the end of this year to allow time for other steps such as a local plebiscite.

But even though Aquino’s ruling coalition has a loose majority and he enjoys record-high popularity ratings, there are concerns politicians could reject or water down the proposed law.

Deal breakers

Powerful Christian politicians in Mindanao are regarded as potential deal breakers, while others elsewhere may see political advantage in opposing the deal to appeal to some Catholics ahead of the 2016 national elections.

The deal is also likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2008 struck down a planned peace deal the MILF had negotiated with Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.

Islamic militants opposed to the peace deal are another threat, and could continue to create enduring violence in Mindanao.

Among the potential spoilers is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an MILF splinter group of a few hundred militants that has carried out deadly attacks in the south in recent years.

“We will continue to fight against the government of the Republic of the Philippines because we are for independence and nothing else,” BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama told AFP by phone from his southern hideout.

The MILF leadership has committed to working with the government to neutralise the threat of the BIFF. with reports from the Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com