MANILA: Soldiers and guerrilla fighters will meet in sporting events instead of combat when Philippine President Benigno Aquino makes a historic visit to a rebel camp to promote a peace pact, officials said yesterday.
A “fluvial parade” of dozens of colorfully decorated motorboats will also welcome Aquino today when he visits the outskirts of the main base of the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the country’s south.
Aquino and MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will meet in the strife-torn island of Mindanao to hand out social security benefits to impoverished Muslim residents to show their sincerity in furthering the peace process.
Local military spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said both soldiers and MILF fighters would guard the area although presidential guards would handle Aquino’s personal security.
The two sides, who once fought each other fiercely, will also play “friendly matches” of football, softball and volleyball to welcome the president, Hermoso told radio station DZBB.
However popular sports like basketball were deliberately left out, he said.
“We did not include the contact games for now because there might be some people who will be provoked. They might lose their tempers and things might get heated,” the colonel said.
There are no reports of any threat to the president, Hermoso said. But he added: “We are not complacent in our security precautions. The worst-case scenario has been considered.”
Chief MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the event was historic as it as the first time for a president to enter the main MILF stronghold.
The two leaders may not have time to discuss substantive issues, he said. “The most special thing (about the event) is the confidence-building.”
Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte said the president’s visit would show the sincerity of both sides in reaching out to Muslims who are among the poorest people in the archipelago.
She said the mood would be “very festive.”
An estimated 150,000 people died in a decades-long fight by guerrilla fighters for a separate state in the southern third of the mainly Christian Philippines.
But in October last year the MILF signed a “framework agreement” with Aquino’s government committing both sides to form a new autonomous entity on Mindanao by 2016, when Aquino ends his six-year term.
The MILF vowed to give up its quest for an independent homeland in exchange for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region.