MANILA: The Philippines’ top Muslim separatist leaders have agreed to unite for peace in one of Southeast Asia’s most conflict-torn regions, in a “historic” meeting that took place 46 years after the movement split.
Bangsamoro, a region covering predominantly Muslim areas of Mindanao, has been undergoing a peace process for nearly a decade since the Philippine government struck a permanent ceasefire deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front following decades of conflict.
An armed breakaway group of the Moro National Liberation Front, the oldest Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, the MILF separated from its parent organization in 1977 and continued to fight even when the MNLF reached a peace agreement with Manila in the 1990s. Only in 2014 did the MILF’s fighters agree to turn over their firearms in exchange for the establishment of a self-administered Bangsamoro.
In 2019, Bangsamoro residents voted for its greater autonomy in a referendum held as part of the peace process. The transition period will culminate in 2025, when Bangsamoro will elect its legislature and executive.
The MNLF’s founding chairman, Nur Misuari, and MILF chief Ahod “Al-Haj Murad” Ebrahim sat down for a meeting on Sunday at the former’s house in Davao City, where the two agreed to unite for peace and pave the way for reconciliation.
“That is very important because we have seen in the past that he (Misuari) is not really cooperating. I think this is the first time that he himself expressed support,” Ebrahim told Arab News on Monday.
“That is very good news, good gesture because I really want us all to work together,” he said.
During the meeting, Ebrahim said he told Misuari that the Bangsamoro peace process was the “fruit” of the regional struggle.
“This is not only the struggle of the MILF, but also the struggle of the MNLF,” he said.
Though Ebrahim and Misuari have met on several occasions before, including at an event in 2019, Sunday’s meeting was the first time since 1977 that both leaders sat down for a discussion, Misuari’s daughter Nur-Ainee Tan Lim, who helped arrange the event, told Arab News.
“It was very emotional because it’s been 46 years since the top leaders of MNLF and MILF really held a meeting of that magnitude,” Lim said.
“They could feel the magnificent moment and the historic moment that was happening right there.”
Lim said the meeting was “not something that happened overnight,” and had followed years of hard work and persistence, as well as “a lot of convincing” from both sides.
Misuari and Ebrahim agreed “to sustain the gains of peace that they want to carry on,” she said.
They also discussed other ways to boost development in Mindanao, with Misuari suggesting the possibility of getting the Organization of Islamic Cooperation involved in those efforts, Lim said.
“They were willing to just, you know, forget whatever differences and try to find the commonality so that they can just move forward as one,” she added.
The renewed sense of cooperation will get to see daylight again later this month, Lim said, at an inauguration event for new members of the Bangsomoro Transition Authority, the interim regional government in the region, where both Misuari and Ebrahim, as well as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., are expected to attend.
After decades of conflict, Mindanao’s development has been hampered and the region kept among the poorest regions not only in the Philippines, but also in Asia.