Cardinal Quevedo, head of the 1.5 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cotabato in Central Mindanao considers Tuesday's (June 16) decommissioning of 145 combatants and 75 weapons of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a show of the commitment of the country's largest rebel group to the peace process and their resolve to abandon war and violence.
"For people who do not trust the MILF, or the Bangsamoro, in general, this fact should be a proof about the MILF's sincerity about peace, and that they can be trusted”, Cardinal Quevedo also said.
In the presence of President Benigno Aquino, MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, Government and MILF Officials, GHP Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, OPAPP Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, MILF Peace panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal and prominent international figures who are involve in the peace process, the Moro Front undertook a symbolic turnover of their firearms and decommissioning of their combatants to the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) in compliance with their obligation to the peace agreement's normalization annex.
In return, the government will offer them socioeconomic packages to help them reintegrate into mainstream society and live normally as civilians.
The Moro group which started fighting the government for independence since early 70’s but shifted to a full autonomy for the Moro dominated areas in Southern Mindanao signed with the government the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro on March 27, 2014 at the Malacañan Palace Ground.
But the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) crafted by the Bangsamor Transition Commission (BTC) remains pending in Congress after a “misencounter” in January involving members of the PNP-Special Action Force, MILF members and other rebels that killed more than 60 combatants and civilians. The incident sparked skepticism on the MILF's sincerity in the peace process.
Some legislators in both Chambers of Congress are also questioning the constitutionality of the proposed Bangsamoro law, especially because the proposed Bangsamoro government will be parliamentarian in nature while the Philippines have a presidential form of government.
Under the normalization matrix, the second of the four phases of decommissioning, involving 30 percent of the MILF's combatants and weapons, will take place once the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or BBL, is passed.
The third phase, involving 35 percent of the MILF forces and weapons, will follow when the police force that will be established for the Bangsamoro shall have started functioning.
The final phase will be conducted when the exit agreement is about to be signed.
The MILF leadership claims it has more than 12,000 armed fighters.
Haydar Berk, a former Turkish representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who heads the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) overseeing the MILF's decommissioning process, said the projected time to complete all four phases is before June next year, when President Benigno Aquino ends his term.
"I think this is visionary statesmanship," Berk said of Aquino's dedication to fast-track the implementation of the peace agreement. "I think statesmanship requires not to think so much of the present situation, but to think about the future generations."
Speaking to Kyodo News a day after the symbolic decommissioning held Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province just few kilometers from the MILF administrative camp at Darapanan, Berk said the event sent a "very important signal" about the future of the country, not only to people in Mindanao but also to the entire nation and the rest of the world.
"When you look from outside the Philippines, this issue is not about the southern part of the Philippines, but about the whole...This is a beautiful area, a fertile area of the Philippines. It will be jewel in the future. Tourism, investments will be coming because they look for stability and security," he said.
"When there is stability, more people will come from all over the world. And this will be a very developed, high-income place in the future. So the people in Manila shouldn't see this as an issue only down south that is not affecting them."
Cardinal Quevedo laments that opposition to the creation of the Bangsamoro region is prevalent also among local residents, including Christians who still hold prejudices against the Muslim people and the MILF.
He also noted "how the media was an instrument to incite these prejudices," especially those expressed by legislators following the January deadly clash in Maguindanao's Mamasapano town, which claimed the lives of 44 policemen and nearly 20 MILF fighters.
"I appreciate their (44 policemen) sacrifices, but Mamasapano incident was a volcano that erupted, an eruption of prejudices and biases against Muslims, so that everybody was saying, 'Why go on with this BBL when we cannot trust them (MILF), and the only thing to do is pulverize them,'" Cardinal Quevedo said.
"This is also an irony, because it took place after the visit of Pope Francis who spoke much about peace and reconciliation. His first message in Malacanang (presidential palace) was about how happy he was with the peace process. But we forgot that. We forgot the message of Pope Francis," Quevedo said.
He said there is a need to re-evangelize Christians who manifest "a disconnect between our faith, and the life we actually live."
"I often say to some people: with all the biases and prejudices you have expressed regarding the situation, regarding people, what do you think would Jesus say to you? It's the same Jesus who says 'love even your enemies,' so accommodate all those who are needy, and the poor, and the deprived, and the oppressed," he said.
"The message I get from this decommissioning process is confidence building, building trust again. And I pray that the message is understood by others," he added.
Cardinal Quevedo hopes legislators deliberating on the draft Bangsamoro law would respect its letter and spirit, as submitted by the proponents, and leave the issue of constitutionality to the Supreme Court, should anyone question it later.
"The BBL and the MILF movement is a movement not only for self-determination, but to change the history of the Bangsamoro, and the history of governance. They realize that the governance done by political dynasties, clans have not been very good. So, the MILF now is a rebellion against traditional Moro leadership. And the parliament is supposed to take care of that, where the power of the clans will be reduced by the parliamentary form of government," he explained.
Cardinal Quevedo also expressed confidence that Christians, specifically Catholics like him, will remain in the area should the Bangsamoro region be set in place, noting that the proposed law "does not pose a threat to religion."
The war in Mindanao has already claimed the lives of some 150,000 people, caused the displacement of millions, some half a million sought refuge in Sabah; and stagnated the island's economic development despite its having rich natural resources.