MANILA, Philippines – Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) member Rasid Ladiasan sat alone on the far right side of the huge white tent, which sheltered over 1,000 guests from the scorching March afternoon sun.
He wore a pinstriped jacket over a powder blue button down and a bright orange tie, his graying hair tucked neatly underneath his traditional Muslim headpiece. Hours before the signing, as guests entered the Malacañang grounds and chitchatted and mingled, Ladiasan was quiet, content.
Ladiasan said he chose not to sit with his friends because he wants no distractions. Even his wife and children are not here, but at home in Mindanao. All he wants is to take in the significance of the event, the magnitude of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
On Thursday, March 27, the government and the MILF, after 17 years of peace talks, signed a peace pact aimed at ending the decades-long armed conflict between the government of the Philippines and Muslim Mindanao.
Mindanaoan music blared through the speakers, while traditional dancers performed before the official start of the event, a celebration of Muslim culture and way of life, of identity, but above all, of success – today marks the end of their struggles.
Foreign dignitaries, politicians, and almost 600 MILF rebels trooped to Manila for the biggest event of President Benigno Aquino III’s presidency, all dreamers and celebrators of peace.
Ladiasan, 40, is one of them. He said he has yet to fully comprehend the signing, a cause he dedicated almost half of his life to. And right before it is cemented by words of promises and ink and signatures of leaders, Ladiasan, who is articulate and intelligent and speaks to this writer only in fluent English, realizes he himself has no words to describe what he is feeling.
“Its really unexplainable. It’s a feeling that you could only feel when you think that everything has turned right, that everything that you have done in your modest capacity were all worth it,” he said.
“And that cannot be explained by any word.”
Ladiasan, who grew up in Cotabato, first visited an MILF camp in 1996 when he was just 23 years old. He was still studying, an active youth leader.
That visit changed his life.
“I was already very active in social issues, in community organization and community services. Then I was able to go to MILF camp to meet the chairman [Hashim Salamat], to hear the late chairman deliver a message for the Bangsamoro youth and that started it,” he said.
“It was as if I could not not come back to the camp to learn better about the struggle and make it my inspiration, my commitment to work for the Bangsamoro people who have been living in a very difficult situation. The Bangsamoro people who have been deprived many many opportunities, many many privileges, of peace.”
Ladiasan has been an active member ever since. Today he is the Secretariat Chairman of the MILF ceasefire committee.
The MILF, the country’s largest Moro rebel group, was first formed in 1978 by the ideological and scholarly Hashim following a bitter split and leadership struggle between himself and former UP Professor Nur Misuari who was chair of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The breakaway group later named MILF grew formidably under Hashim’s leadership to an armed force of at least 12,000 and eventually became even stronger than the MNLF. Hashim died of a heart attack in 2003, giving way to now chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.
End of struggle
In his speech at the signing, Murad hailed the signing as the dawn of prosperity for the Bangsamoro.
“The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is the crowning glory of our struggle,” he said.
“With this agreement the legitimate aspirations of the Bangsamoro and the commitment of the government of the Philippines to recognize those aspirations are now sealed.”
And while the MNLF has been opposed to the peace talks, Murad embraced them and encompassed them in the day’s triumph, saying “the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is not only for the MILF, it is for the MNLF as well.”
Aquino too acknowledged the shortcomings of previous governments in addressing the needs of Muslim Mindanaoans. (READ: Peace won’t be snatched from my people again’)
“We must remember that, for so long, Muslim Mindanao has been left in the margins. The amount of attention that the national government granted it ebbed with the electoral cycle….For generations, fellow Filipinos in the region were embroiled in a cycle of poverty, injustice, and violence,” he said.
“When the Bangsamoro people felt that they had no redress within the system, they then tried to address their grievances from outside of the system. We must therefore give them a significant boost up, so that they can catch up: If we are to truly address the root causes of conflict, we must close the gap between the region and the rest of Filipino society.”
There are roughly 4 million Muslims in Mindanao, which they see as their ancestral homeland dating back to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s.
The MILF and other Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for independence or autonomy in Mindanao since the early 1970s but under the peace deal, they have ceased to aspire for a separate state. (READ:The Bangsamoro peace deal)
‘My life just started’
The rebellion has claimed more than 150,000 lives, most in the 1970s when all-out war raged, and left large parts of Mindanao in deep poverty.
Ladiasan himself never took up arms because he said “it was not in my training at that time.”
“I could not do well with that. We were working on the information, communication, papers and I think its a very, very important role, a very, very important assignment in my humble capacities to contribute,” he said.
But on the day of the signing, he said he remembers those who fought, those who died, those who sacrificed their lives to find justice for the Bangsamoro people. (READ: The long road to the Bangsamoro)
By the time the actual document was signed, raw emotion ran deep within the audience. Ripples of tears swept through the crowd, an overwhelming mix of relief, joy and hope.
There was applause, standing ovations, a celebration of a promise of a brighter future.
Ina Ambolodto, who grew up in Mindanao, had difficulty expressing her happiness. Donned in bright peach Muslim garb adorned with beautiful gold sequins, her hair wrapped under an intricate white cloth, she said she was emotional, as she remembered her own experience of being an evacuee in the 1970s amid the fighting in her region.
“We are so incredibly happy because we have long hoped for peace in Mindanao. Hopefully this is the start of change for all,” she said. “This is so important to me. Especially this day, we will never forget it.”
While leaders admitted there would be challenges in implementing the agreement and even spoilers, on this day, they choose instead to focus on the positive, on the fact a compromise has been reached.
There are no concerns it will fail, because failing is not an option. Not when they have come this far, and this close to the possibility of enduring peace.
“I don’t have any reservations. I have the personal commitment and the people have the commitment too. The nation has the commitment to peace, to meet in peace and prosperity together. Because this will be better for all of us,” Ladiasan said.
He said this is the legacy he wants to leave his children, his 3 daughters and his young son: a Mindanao that knows peace.
Asked whether he thinks his life’s work feels worth it on this day, Ladiasan paused.
“I think my life is just beginning. My life has just started, to see how best I can be of service, be of help to peace, to the commitment to peace, unity and equality and equal opportunities for all,” he said.
“I think my life has just started.” – Rappler.com