‘Assalamu Alaikum, Peace Be Unto You.’
On 15 October, under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, thousands of Muslim women and men gathered outside Malacanang, the presidential palace, to bear witness to the signing of a historic peace pact between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels.
The Muslim crowd had gathered the night before to start the so-called vigil for peace. They didn’t mind waiting for hours on end. It was a small price to pay to see a day they hoped for but didn’t think would ever happen in this lifetime.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group had been waging a four-decade insurgency before deciding to take the road to peace.
At 3pm, the Philippine government and a representative from the 11,000-strong MILF signed a preliminary peace pact aimed at ending decades of conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced countless men, women and children.
It is the beginning of an era in the Muslim-dominated southern Philippines, a region so rich in resources that it can feed the whole country but is ironically mired in deep poverty because of decades of fighting. Reports say that 150,000 people lost their lives in the 1970s because of the government’s all-out war against rebels.
The agreement marks the first step toward a final pact that grants Muslims in Mindanao the autonomy for which they have long been fighting. In exchange, the rebels agreed to lay down their arms and end the violence that not only crippled development in the region but also made the island so poor.
Both parties recognized that extending the proverbial olive branch is just the first step in achieving lasting peace. Hard work and difficult challenges lie ahead, officials from both camps said.
But as in anything good and significant, taking the first step is an important and bold move.
The final peace agreement hopes to be sealed before the end of President Benigno Aquino III’s six-year administration in 2016.
The initial peace pact signed on Monday is a product of 15 years of intense negotiations and debates facilitated by Malaysia, which shares a border with the southern Philippines.
President Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and MILF rebel chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim witnessed Monday’s signing, along with hundreds of people who have been waiting for the landmark deal.
In a speech before the signing, Ebrahim said he didn’t think he’d ever set foot on Malacanang.
‘I must confess that this is the first time in my life that I have stepped on the grounds of Malacanang. It is in the context that I come in peace,’ said Ebrahim, who was given a red-carpet welcome.
Malaysian Prime Minister Razak shared the story of an evacuee who nearly lost hopes for peace.
‘I was not even married when this conflict began. Then we had children. We had to evacuate again. Now we have three grandchildren and nothing has changed,’ Razak quoted the evacuee as saying.
‘Now, something has changed,’ Razak said in his speech.
President Aquino said the peace agreement now gives the people the right to peaceful coexistence.
It is an agreement, he said, that would now give every child in Mindanao or elsewhere in the Philippines, ‘the opportunity to shape their own destiny’.
Ebrahim handed President Aquino a miniature version of a traditional Muslim gong.
‘This is the sound of peace,’ he said as he banged on the gong.
It is my hope that the sound of peace echoes not just in the jam-packed hall of Malacanang but also in the minds of each and everyone involved in the whole process; in the hearts of the tens of thousands who have lived in conflict, toward their homes in far-flung villages in Mindanao; in barren hills-turned-mass graves for the dead; in the island’s strife-torn schools and homes; and in abandoned hospitals there.
May the sound never be drowned again by the deafening exchange of bullets or homemade bombs or by wails of families burying their dead, but only by the laughter of children playing endlessly under the sun, or a glistening crescent moon.