Historic visit: PH military welcomes MILF to Camp Aguinaldo

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) welcomed high-ranking Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) officials in a historic visit to Camp Aguinaldo on Thursday, July 12, sending a strong message of support at a critical stage of the peace process. 

MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar and Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) chief of staff Sammy Al Mansour and colleagues at the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) set foot in Camp Aguinaldo for a courtesy call to AFP chief General Carlito Galvez Jr. 

It was a ceremony characterized by military pomp and pageantry, sending goosebumps to military officers and MILF rebels who shared stories about the years they fought each other fiercely. 

Arrival honors, followed by a reception inside the general headquarters, were given by the military top brass to Muslim rebels talking peace with the government. 

MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar was handed a white rose that symbolized peace before he was led to a red carpet, where Galvez waited to shake his hand. The military chief then escorted Jaafar to shake the hands of generals occupying high posts in the headquarters, including intelligence offices, and key commands in Mindanao.

“We feel honored by the invitation and humbled by the welcome,” Jaafar told reporters. 

“This is the first time I’m seeing Jaafar in person,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Noel Detoyato told reporters in a celebratory tone. He approached Jaafar after the courtesy call to reminisce his years as young lieutenant in the 1990s fighting in the jungles of Maguindanao. 

The names of the generals and the BTC members were called one by one, each one standing to introduce themselves to everyone in the room. An applause followed each name.

Military officers welcomed the BTC gesture to introduce Al-Mansour by his legal name Abdulraof Macacua. "He's only been known to the military as Sammy Al Mansour. It shows you the level of mutual trust," said military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo.

The warm welcome is a stark mood change from Congress, where BTC members are lobbying hard to restore deleted provisions in the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. (READ: Bicam draft 'not a watered-down BBL,' says BTC chair Jaafar)

“My presence here is really a fruit of the peace process. There is a general who said if you want peace, be prepared for war. That’s not correct. If you really want peace, then be prepared for peace. Without peace, I don’t think and it’s very impossible for us to be here in Camp Aguinaldo,” said Mansour, the counterpart of Galvez in the MILF, commanding units on the ground.

After the red-carpet welcome, the MILF officials were led to the Hall of Flags for photos in the reception area meant for VIP guests. 

"On behalf of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen, I welcome you to the military headquarters,” Galvez told Jaafar.

“On behalf of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, I thank you for your invitation to us,” said Jaafar. 

After the ceremony, the military and the BTC proceeded to business. The media were ushered out of the room to allow the military and the BTC to discuss the “normalization” work after the expected passage of the Bangsamoro law on July 23, in time for the State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Normalization includes the commitment of the MILF to make sure that the BIAF combatants will “put their weapons beyond use” after the Bangsamoro law is passed to end the fighting and make way for peace in the communities.  

The closed-door forum between the military and BTC members lasted about an hour. The MILF officials were also later invited to the office of Galvez for a private meeting.  

The peace process evolved the relationship between the military and the MILF from foes to partners. Galvez and Jaafar had a laugh on Thursday sharing to reporters the latter's experience flying on a military chopper in January 2016 to Basilan for a public consultation on the Bangsamoro law.

Jaafar said he couldn't forget how the military used to deploy Huey choppers to conduct air strikes against them. He was initially hesitant and scared to ride the military chopper, but eventually came to enjoy it.

"I'm saying it right now, maganda pala sakyan ang choppers. Kaya lang, ito yung mga nagma-machine gun sa amin noon (it's a great experience riding the choppers, although these were the same choppers firing at us before)," a laughing Jaafar said.

Galvez said the creation of the new Bangsamoro region will pave the way for better cooperation between the military and the MILF in fighting armed groups in Mindanao, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the breakaway group of MILF.

"The cooperation and solidarity among us in necessary now more than ever, as we are only a few steps closer to achieving the objectives of the transition process. I trust that we shall see better days ahead for our brothers and sisters in Mindanao," said Galvez. –  Rappler.com