Decommissioning is first step to real peace, not surrender – MILF

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MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim chats with President Benigno Aquino III at the ceremonial start of the decommissioning of the rebels.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The decommissioning of fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that started on Tuesday (June 16) was more than a symbolic event but the first step in achieving real and lasting peace in Mindanao.

Speakers from both the government and rebel sides stressed this as they took turns at the stage set up for the historic event in Barangay Simuay, Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao.

"For some people, it's about statistics — 145 fighters and 75 firearms," Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chairman, told an audience that included President Benigno Aquino III and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.

"But this is not about statistics. This is something deeply personal to us.

"As I look at the faces of each of our 145 brothers here in this morning, I see 145 stories of struggle, of pain, of hopelessness, and even of death.

"Yet I also see 145 stories of hope and faith that indeed peace is near and that all the sacrifices have been worth it.

"I see not only their stories but my story as well and the stories of all the mujahideen that have given their lives, their intelligence, their talents to the struggle to protect the Bangsamoro people. What we have today are not the stories of only 145 fighters. What we have today are the stories of the whole Bangsamoro: oppression, tyranny, and yes, liberation."

READ: Speech of MILF chief at the decommissioning ceremony.

Beyond words

It had not been an easy peace process, he said. In fact, he added, even within the MILF, officials up to now continued to discuss the peace process.

Turkish Ambassador Haydar Berk, chairperson of the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB), praised both sides for their efforts, saying: "We are proud to be part of this historic, courageous peace process. I have doubt that not only the present generation but future generations would admire your visionary statesmanship."

Berk added that the ceremony was more than just symbolic. It would be the model for the decommissioning events to follow.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF negotiator, said, the ceremony put into deeds, not just words, what Muslims in Mindanao want.

"If you want peace, prepare for peace," Iqbal said in a speech he delivered before Ebrahim spoke. "This is the start of our preparation."

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer called the process a "dry run" for the normalization of MILF fighters.

Secretary Teresita Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process, said the process would start with, among other things, government case workers taking stock of what the fighters, along with their communities, would need to get back to a normal, peaceful life, after decades conflict with government troops.

No surrender, no weakness

Both Ebrahim and Iqbal stressed that decommissioning was neither an act of surrender nor a sign of weakness.

"It is a sign of strength, for our strength lies not in firearms but in the love and affection of the Bangsamoro people," Ebrahim said. "Without the support of the Bangsamoro people, we may have all the arms in the world, and yet there will be no victory."

He and Iqbal also praised and thanked President Aquino for being committed to the pursuit of peace in Mindanao.

In turn, he said the MILF was determined to comply with the terms set in the the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

After peace talks that had been brokered by Malaysia since 1997, the government and MILF panels signed the FAB on October 15, 2012, and the CAB on March 27, 2014.

16-june-2015-benigno-aquino-iii-milf-decommissioning.jpg President Benigno Aquino III (center) and MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim look over the arms turned over by rebel fighters on Tuesday, June 16, 2015.  

Sign of trust

Ebrahim noted how Aquino was no stranger to an oppressive regime. He was alluding to the martial law days, during which the president's father, former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., was jailed as political prisoner by then President Ferdinand Marcos.

"We cannot thank President Aquino enough for his unwavering commitment in our partnership to build a truly democratic, peaceful, and safe society in the Bangsamoro," Ebrahim said.

In turn, President Aquino acknowledged the abuses that Moros suffered in the hands of some Christians in Mindanao, particularly in the issue of land ownership, which was part of the cause of a conflict that lasted for decades.

READ: Aquino's speech at the MILF decommissioning ceremony.

Achieving mutual trust, Aquino said, became very difficult because "the wounds were deep," as he put it in Filipino.

But now, with an agreement already in place, he praised the MILF for putting its trust in the government.

Laying down their arms, he pointed, was a sign that they were willing to entrust their safety and security to the government, even though there remained threats from other armed groups in Mindanao.

The gesture was all the more remarkable, he said, because the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law was still under debate in Congress. That measure would create a Bangsamoro political entity to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Aquino hit back at critics of the proposed BBL, who clamored for its scrapping in response to a battle between police commandos of the Special Action Force and the MILF fighters in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last January 25.

Speaking in Filipino, he said: "Instead of asking: 'How could I improve the BBL so it could solve the complaints of our countrymen,' it seems they're thinking: 'How can I stop or block this?'"

Chance to right a wrong

The drafting of a good Bangsamoro Basic Law, Aquino said, would be an opportunity to scrap ineffective measures that the government had tried in the past to solve problems in Mindanao.

Speaking in Filipino, he said:

"This is the truth: Our brothers in the Bangsamoro are not asking for much. What they desire is a decent and peaceful way of life, like any other Filipino. We should also admit that we've neglected each other. But there's nothing written in our religion and our laws that says we have to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. So here we are now. We are being given an opportunity to correct what's wrong. Will we turn our backs on it?"

Suggesting that other Filipinos stand up for the rights of Muslims, he recalled the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed during World War II for his resistance to the Nazis:

"First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade-unionists, but I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

"It's true," Aquino said. "If you allow the rights of others to be trampled upon, aren't you also allowing this cycle to repeat itself, and someday you might become its victim?"