If the Mindanao peace process ends up a success, it will be seen as the gesture that made all the difference.

President Aquino’s visit last Monday to the stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, has entered the books as a historic and unprecedented act—the first formal foray into Muslim rebel territory by a sitting Chief Executive in search of a final settlement to the age-old Mindanao troubles. While the visit was more symbolic than anything else—the government and MILF panels are said to be still far from a final consensus on the details of the “framework agreement” signed in October 2012 for the establishment of the Bangsamoro, a new autonomous region in Mindanao, by 2016—Mr. Aquino’s bold act left no doubt about his sincerity and determination to seek a lasting solution to the strife in Mindanao before his term ends.

His words had a ring of grave urgency to them: “We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this [peace] permanent.”

Implied in that statement is the very real possibility that, whoever his successor may be, the prospects of peace in Mindanao—more probable now than it has ever been in years, with the MILF having formally renounced its armed campaign for a separate homeland under the “framework agreement”—will not get the same push and priority that his administration is giving it. If the history of politics in this nation is any measure, then the President’s fears aren’t off the mark. New administrations routinely discard the projects and roadmaps of the old one, and it’s not farfetched to imagine that the presidency succeeding Mr. Aquino’s would not have the same enthusiasm, commitment or focus on this project, toxic as it may be to be seen as politically freeloading on what could turn out to be the signal, history-making achievement of its predecessor.

Such is politics. But what a pity if the inroads made so far toward finding a just and far-reaching Mindanao settlement would once again fall by the wayside. This rare moment of unanimity—when the government’s newfound resolve to see the decades-old turmoil in Mindanao as more than a peace-and-order problem somehow dovetails with the MILF rebels’ own realization that their Bangsamoro dreams can be fulfilled within a framework of political and economic autonomy that does not dismember the republic—is an opportunity unlike any other.

The last time a Philippine president had ventured into rebel territory in Mindanao, it was as a swaggering conquistador. President Joseph Estrada had ordered all-out war as his solution to the Mindanao problem, never mind the thousands of inhabitants displaced by the fierce fighting in the affected areas. When the main rebel stronghold fell, Estrada came bearing gifts for his victorious army—beer and lechon, a deliberate poke in the eye at Muslim proscriptions against liquor and pork. Such outrageous insensitivity might have stroked the egos of the proudly macho Estrada and his generals, but it merely stoked the fires even more and left Mindanao in the same tinderbox state it had been.

In his visit last Monday, Mr. Aquino also came bearing gifts: livelihood programs meant to jump-start the socioeconomic rehabilitation of ordinary Mindanao folk, as the intended bedrock for any comprehensive peace agreement to follow. Under the Sajahatra Bangsamoro program, the government will provide health insurance through PhilHealth, funding for schools for the rebels’ families and scholarship grants, and job projects through livelihood training.

As AFP News has pointed out, Mindanao is “a fertile and resource-rich region that remains one of the country’s poorest areas because of the conflict as well as corruption.” The President’s personal promise of economic development as a prelude to and foundation for peace is thus a welcome departure from the strong-arm tactics successive governments had long leveled at the region.

The work, of course, does not stop with these confidence-building measures. The greater challenge not only for the government but also for the MILF—if it is to become a true partner for peace—is for these projects to take root, free from the usual sleaze and corruption of local politics, and bear eventual fruit for the ordinary folk. Peace by way of progress should be the end goal for Mindanao. Failing that, Mr. Aquino’s visit to MILF territory may end up characterized differently—not merely historic, but a historic failure.

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Tags: Benigno Aquino , Government , MILF , Mindanao peace process

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