'My first time to see a President'
MAGUINDANAO, Philippines - Hours before the scheduled visit of President Benigno Aquino III in Maguindanao, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are already thrilled to catch a glimpse of the visiting government leader.
"I am excited to see PNoy. This is my first time to see a president," Joel, an MILF fighter, said. The 31-year old rebel has already fought in several gun battles between the MILF and state security forces.
When not on duty inside Camp Darapanan, which is the main camp of the MILF, Joel drives a passenger motorcycle to help support his family.
"Finally, I can now have access to the services being provided by PhilHealth," Joel said referring to one of the socio-economic services that will be brought in by President Benigno Aquino III in his visit to the rebel territory on Monday, February 11.
"Can I get two cards?" he jokingly asked.
Dubbed as Sahajatra Bangsamoro, the event, which will be graced by Aquino, aims to improve the health, education and livelihood conditions in MILF territories.
Colorful tents, banners and flags are now giving a festive mood in the venue which is just a few kilometers away from Camp Darapanan while government troops and MILF forces are seen working together in preparing the event.
A government checkpoint is manned on both entrances of the venue while a small makeshift store near it sells MILF uniforms.
Members of the Presidential Security Guard are already in the area to help secure the place for the arrival of Aquino.
The MILF and the government also declared that forces from both parties would be working hand in hand to provide security.
In an editorial posted on its official website, the MILF said the government projects are manifestations of the gains of pursuing peace negotiations.
The peace negotiation has recently attained a major breakthrough with the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), which would serve as the blueprint of the final peace deal.
"It is to convey to our people and combatants, after signing of the FAB, that there is something that trickles to them as a way of peace dividends. More importantly, the MILF believes this will redound to their greater benefits which could also empower them economically and henceforth politically for more vigorous and sustained assertion of their right to self-determination," the MILF said.
The MILF also explained that they are agreeing to the socio-economic deal of the government since it is a very important component of the peace agreement. "It is a necessary component of conflict resolutions tried and tested in various parts of the world. It is part of the whole deal," the MILF said. "We believe President Benigno Aquino III has no hidden agenda when he causes the implementation of these projects. Besides, our people, who have been ravaged and marginalized by 40 years of continuous war, need them to jumpstart their long journey to recovery."
In the recently concluded 2013 Philippines Development Forum, Aquino disclosed that resolving the conflict in Mindanao is a top priority of the government.
Aquino added that peace and security is vital in ensuring a steady inflow of investments in the Mindanao.
A leader of the Kabataan party list, Bai Ali Indayla, has urged the public to scrutinize the planned visit of Aquino.
"The visit is sure to get the attention of Filipinos especially those who follow the peace process. But we call on the public not to get carried away easily," Indayla said.
Indayla agreed with Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, that the event is "merely symbolic."
"The Moro people deserve more than just another experiment designed to momentarily offset the social and economic hardship of select beneficiaries," Indayla commented.
"The program promises to aid beneficiaries to a number of health and social services yet this government is doggedly pursuing the privatization of government hospitals that mostly cater to impoverished communities including those of the target beneficiaries," she added.
Indayla said Aquino must show his commitment and sincerity to the Bangsamoro cause by "effecting clear-cut policies that favor the great majority of Filipinos, not that of large businesses and foreign corporations."
For Joel, he describes the mood inside Camp Darapanan as jovial, saying the rebels are optimistic and riding on high morale.
"I have a feeling that this conflict is about to end. At last we can now stop the fighting," Joel said.
But Joel vowed to remain vigilant. "We are happy with the present developments and the social services that will soon reach our village. However, we cannot conclude yet that everything will be all right. We will remain vigilant. Let us see what will happen next," Joel said. - Rappler.com