PHILIPPINE President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III flew unannounced to Japan on Thursday and met for two hours with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman, Ibrahim Al Haj Murad, in what appeared to be a major breakthrough in the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and Moro rebel forces.
Details of what transpired in the meeting were not disclosed but sources said that a press conference will be held on Friday afternoon when Aquino arrives from Narita airport.
According to Mindanews’ Carol Arguillas, it was Aquino who requested for the meeting with Murad.
It came days after the government peace panel failed to meet its self-imposed August 1 deadline to submit its draft comprehensive proposal.
“This explains the silence,” government peace panel chair, Marvic Leonen, and his MILF counterpart chair, Mohagher Iqbal, said.
The MILF have already submitted its own draft proposal as early as February this year.
Iqbal described the Aquino initiative as a “grand gesture.” He did not elaborate.
The meeting between Aquino and Murad comes exactly three years after the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that would have granted the MILF greater autonomy in wider areas in Mindanao.
The MOA-AD was a result of years of negotiations between the then Arroyo government and the MILF.
Several politicians and groups, however, questioned the draft agreement before the Supreme Court.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, several area commanders of the MILF launched simultaneous attacks which left scores of civilians and combatants dead and sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing their homes.
During Aquino’s second state of the nation address in July, he was criticized for failing to include the Mindanao peace agenda in his speech.
The peace panels from both sides were supposed to meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on August 2-4, but it was cancelled presumably to give way to the Aquino-Murad meeting.
Leonen said the meeting was “cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement.”
For his part, Iqbal said after the meeting: “There is something to hope for but it takes a lot of legworking”.
The meeting reportedly ended in a “handshake’ between Aquino and Murad.
Twenty five years ago, Aquino’s late mother and former Philippine President Corazon Aquino went to the rebel stronghold of Sulu in southern Philippines to meet with Nur Misuari, then chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to signal the start of peace negotiations with the then largest Moro rebel group in the country.
In 1996, the MNLF and the Philippine government under President Fidel Ramos Ramos signed the Jakarta Peace Accord ending decades of Moro war in Mindanao.
The MILF, however, were not a party in the peace agreement.
The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1981 after Misuari signed the 1976 Tripoli Agreement.
It has since become the largest Moro rebel group in the country.