MANILA: On Nov. 19, Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, a former rebel leader who was once one of the most wanted insurgents in the Philippines, was seen shaking hands with top military commanders at an army base in Manila.
Ebrahim, the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), formerly the country’s largest rebel group, was welcomed at the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines by General Carlito Galvez Jr, the chief of staff, and other senior military commanders for what has been hailed as a historic and hugely symbolic meeting.
The moment was testament to the momentum behind the peace process and the desire to end a conflict that has killed about 120,000 people, displaced 2 million, and helped radical groups gain a foothold in the region.
Arab News contacted Ebrahim two days after his visit to the army HQ to find out what had changed to persuade him to visit military camps and bases that had previously been the main targets of his group’s attacks, and shake hands with men he had once aspired to kill and who had killed many of his comrades.
He said that politics and diplomacy had emerged as the best options.
“The Philippine army has never been our enemy,” he said in an emailed response.
“We are against injustice and aggression. Today there is a real chance to make peace. There is a sincere intention from both sides for peace in the south.”
Ebrahim has visited the presidential palace, Malacanang, several times since the peace talks began and an agreement has been reached on the framework for the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a peace deal that will allow Muslims in the south to start moving toward achieving self-rule by 2022, in a bid to tackle extremism and end half a century of conflict.
That Ebrahim, after years of fighting, is now being welcomed with military honors at the headquarters of the Philippine army is a remarkable event. It is recognition by the armed forces that MILF is a major influence on both war and peace in Mindanao, the second-largest island of the Philippines, and a realization by the military leadership that the peace process deserves a chance.
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the US in 2001, when President George Bush’s “war on terror” reached the Philippines, MILF was mentioned in the US and the Philippines as a militant group that could pose a threat to US interests in the country and across Southeast Asia. The group was also accused of providing aid to suspected militants from Al-Qaeda and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.
I visited the Philippines twice between 2002 and 2004. I met Ebrahim on both occasions and each time he stressed two points: That his group had no interest in targeting American forces and did not consider the US to be an enemy, but also that his fight would continue until there was a declaration of an autonomous region for the Muslims of the southern Philippines.
In January 2004, when Ebrahim was labeled one of the most-wanted men by the Philippine army, I contacted MILF requesting an interview with him. Unlike previous visits, when I had traveled directly to Cotabato city, the main stronghold of MILF in the south, this time I was asked to fly into in the city of General Santos, a well-known tourist resort in the southern Philippines.
I was told by the man assigned to take me to Cotabato that the MILF security team would not allow my Filipino cameraman to accompany me to Ebrahim’s hideout “for security reasons.” It took us almost a day to travel across the jungles between Marawi and Cotabato before we reached our destination. Even then, I had to wait several hours before Ebrahim appeared with his security team.
Throughout that interview, he stressed that he did not feel tired despite being on the run, and that he was sure Muslims in the south would gain autonomy.
Last week, after 40 years of armed conflict with the Philippine military, Ebrahim took a step closer to realizing his dream as he entered the headquarters of the Philippine army and was greeted by top generals as a partner in peace.
In the 14 years between these two moments — Ebrahim in the jungles of Mindanao carrying arms and planning attacks, and Ebrahim the politician confidently shaking hands with his erstwhile foes — many transformations have taken place but also many challenges persist.
“We are now transformed from enmity to partnership,” Murad said.
“We have confidence in each other now and we have seen good intentions from the government toward making peace in the south.”
But this peace process has come at a price, not least splits within Ebrahim’s group and the emergence of new armed groups from within the ranks of MILF itself. These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, who have rejected the peace agreement and declared war on both MILF and the Philippine army.
In a dangerous development, many of these new groups are cooperating with Daesh, a newcomer whose influence is expanding in the Philippines, most notably in their devastating occupation of Marawi city last year.
It is not only breakaway armed groups that oppose the peace agreement, however. There are also forces within state institutions in the Philippines, civilian and military, that are clearly inimical to the idea. For instance, Philippine legislators have delayed writing the peace agreement into law for several months. Even when it does become law, challenges are expected from the Supreme Court.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the peace agreement, however, is one of mentality. Soldiers from the Western Mindanao Command have told me that many of the troops secretly whisper the belief that peace in the south is a far-fetched idea. The military option remains the only solution, they say.
As long as this thinking persists, the hope for peace in the southern Philippines might well remain just that.