Philippine President Benigno Aquino III yesterday paid a historic visit to the stronghold of Muslim rebels and said peace talks with them must be sped up.
Aquino handed out educational, health and livelihood benefits to the families of the rebels, to show his government’s intention to improve the lives of the Muslim minority in the largely Christian nation.
In the first presidential visit to the outskirts of the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao, Aquino said peace talks should be completed before his term ends in 2016.
“We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this [peace] permanent,” he said.
Aquino said this would ensure that future peaceful relations would not be dependent on who is in office.
“We are near the fruits of our labor. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint,” he told MILF leaders, Muslim residents and foreign diplomats in a sprawling community housing many of the best-armed MILF fighters.
The MILF in October signed a “framework agreement” with Aquino’s government, committing both sides to form a new autonomous entity on Mindanao by 2016 to end a decades-long guerrilla war for a separate state.
However, the full details of the agreement are still being thrashed out even as Aquino warned that unnamed figures were putting up “obstacles” to peace.
He said friends had warned him not to enter MILF territory, but he replied: “If I can be a bridge, then the sacrifice of one Noynoy [his nickname] is worth it to help so many of our countrymen.”
Muslim rebels began fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern tip of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country’s Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.
An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.