Secret meeting brings hope for peace
MANILA, Aug. 5 – In his most daring move since coming to power a year ago, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III traveled to Japan on Thursday under a veil of secrecy to meet with Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, chairman of the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Aquino's unusual move was a bid to hasten the 14-year off-and-on peace process forward with the hope of signing a peace agreement on or before 2016.
It was the first time in Philippine history that a sitting president met with a top rebel leader in a foreign country in the absence of signed peace pact. Only Aquino, Murad and their note takers were inside the meeting room.
The short trip of Aquino to Japan was kept under wraps until the president return back to Manila Friday. The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) in a statement said that Aquino discussed with Murad “possible approaches in moving the peace process forward.”
Marvic Leonen, chair of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) peace panel negotiating with the MILF, said that “the informal meeting, which lasted for two hours, 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.”
“Both agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration. Both agreed to fast track the negotiations,” he added.
The chief negotiator said that "it was the President himself who sought the meeting prior to the government's submission of its own agenda for the talks." Leonen said.
He said the Tokyo meeting facilitates progress of the formal negotiations between the GPH and MILF panels.
Both panels met last June 27 in Kuala Lumpur where they discussed the possibility for the meeting between President Aquino and Murad. Leonen said that the MILF viewed the government’s offer for a meeting as a “grand gesture.”
“The meeting helps the formal negotiations between the panels of both sides. It will facilitate its progress,” he said.
The President was accompanied to the meeting place by the Secretaries of National Defense, Budget and Management, Finance as well as the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the Presidential Spokesperson and the Chair of the GPH Negotiating Panel.
On the other hand, Murad was accompanied by some members of the Central Committee, the chair of their negotiating panel and some base commanders.
“To ensure the security of the participants and provide the necessary environment free from any agenda which would cloud the discussions, the meeting took place in the suburbs of Tokyo,” Leonen added. Aquino arrived in Japan at about 6 p.m. Thursday and was back in Manila at 10 a.m. Friday.
Leonen also said Aquino’s trip to Japan was unofficial, though he thanked the Japanese government “for providing the facilities consistent with their longstanding commitment to peace.”
The GPH and MILF panels will resume their next formal exploratory talks in Kuala Lumpur on August 22-24.
By sheer coincidence, the August 4 meeting between Aquino and Murad occurred on the anniversary of Philippine Supreme Court's nullification of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government and the MILF.