(File photo)

MANILA – President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s battlecry for unity during the May 2022 elections turned out to be more than just a campaign theme. In his early days in office, the country saw a fruition of holistic and painstaking efforts to achieve lasting peace that paves the way for national progress.

This, as the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity (OPAPRU) touted major milestones in the Bangsamoro peace process that have been achieved in the early months of the Marcos administration.

OPAPRU chief Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said this included the Chief Executive’s demonstration of his resolve to move forward with the Bangsamoro peace process through the appointment of the 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).

“True to the call for inclusivity, the new composition of the BTA is composed of representatives from the Moro National Liberation Front’s (MNLF) Misuari and Sema-Jikiri groups, as well as the sons and daughters of top Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders,” he added.

In the run-up to the BTA’s inaugural session, Galvez said MILF chairperson Murad Ebrahim and Member of Parliament Thong Jikiri of the Sema-Jikiri group met with MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari in the latter’s home, putting an end to the two groups’ 46 years of separation.

“During the inauguration of the BTA last Sept. 15, the country witnessed the reunification of all Bangsamoro leaders. This was both historic and a milestone in the Bangsamoro peace process,” Galvez said.

He added that the President reiterated his call for the BTA to pass the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s (BARMM) crucial codes which include the Electoral Code, Local Government Code, Revenue Code and Indigenous Peoples' Code.

PEACEMAKERS. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (8th from left, front row) poses with members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority Parliament after administering their oaths of office in Malacañang on Aug. 12, 2022. Marcos vowed the Executive Department will support the Bangsamoro peace process all the way. (Courtesy of PBBM's Facebook page)

Galvez said the passage of these codes will lay the foundations of an inclusive, responsive and people-centered governance in the Bangsamoro and “ensure that the BARMM is well-prepared for their first (regional) elections in 2025.”

Bangsamoro Member of Parliament Laisa Alamia described the BTA inaugural session as a “historic” moment for the Bangsamoro peace process as the MILF and MNLF are now reunited after 46 years of separation.

“That day brought so much light and hope to the Bangsamoro journey to peace. We were so happy as members of the Parliament of the BTA. Everyone was able to witness what happened that day,” Alamia said.

As a testament to the MILF and MNLF’s unity and commitment to work together for the welfare of the Bangsamoro people, she said the BTA no longer has a majority and minority block.

“This is one BTA. I used to be the minority floor leader. But we have decided and agreed upon by the entire BTA that there will be no (majority)-minority block,” Alamia said.

She said the body is now “united and committed to making sure the directives given by the President, by OPAPRU, by the security sector at the national level, and of course, the provisions of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the CAB, and the FAB, will be implemented.”

Mussolini Lidasan, Al Qalam Institute executive director, said OPAPRU’s work to sustain the gains of the Bangsamoro peace process “requires much focus and concentration, as well as support from all our stakeholders.”

“The call for unity is very promising and Marcos’ appointment of the new BTA shows his true commitment to continue the gains of peace that the previous administration has started,” Lidasan said.

To sustain the gains of the peace processes with the MILF and MNLF, Galvez said the national government shall carry out a normalization process that aims to bring about the holistic transformation of the former combatants and their organizations.

“(This) entails four levels of interventions -- from the provision of basic services, capacitation and productivity, generating corporate business ventures to social healing, reconciliation and unity,” he added.

Galvez said the national government’s peace-building efforts in the Bangsamoro are anchored on OPAPRU’s expanded mandate and the Marcos administration’s 5-Point Peace, Reconciliation and Unity Agenda:

-- Completion of peace agreements with the MILF and MNLF towards healing and reconciliation in the Bangsamoro;

-- Ending local communist armed conflict by expanding the transformation programs for local conflict peace process;

-- Completion and sustainment of the gains of the signed peace agreements with the Rebolusyonaryong Partido Ng Manggagawa-Pilipinas/Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPM-P/RPA/ABB) and the Cordillera Bodong Administration – Cordillera People's Liberation Army (CBA-CPLA);

-- Enhancement of the resilience for peace of communities and vulnerable groups through social healing and peacebuilding approaches in support of the peace processes;

-- Enhancement of the delivery of CSPP-compliant socioeconomic interventions in addressing the key drivers of conflict through convergence and complementation in support of the peace processes.

In a recent video uploaded by the Radio Television Malacañang (RTVM), Marcos reaffirmed his commitment to the peace process in Mindanao as it will bring the country closer to achieving his vision of a “New Society”.

The second episode of the “Bagong Pilipinas” series featured efforts of the Marcos administration to ensure peace and order, especially in the country’s southern regions.

Mananatiling determinado ang ating administrasyon sa pagbibigay-daan sa isang Bagong Pilipinas kung saan ang lahat ay ligtas at kapit-bisig tungo sa kaunlaran ng bawat mamamayang Pilipino (Our administration will remain determined in enabling a New Society where everyone is safe and connected towards the prosperity of every Filipino citizen),” he said.

It also showed Marcos’ speech at the 77th United Nations General Assembly last September, where he highlighted the success of the BARMM peace process.

“My country’s experiences in building peace and forging new paths of cooperation can enrich the work of the Security Council. Our success in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines is the centerpiece of these efforts,” the Chief Executive added.

(Photo courtesy of OPAPRU)

It also showed the public launch of the resumption of Phase 3 of the decommissioning process on Sept. 27 in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao which aims to reintegrate former combatants to mainstream society by providing them with livelihood and other appropriate programs and services.

A total of 14,000 combatants are targeted to be decommissioned under Phase 3. Each beneficiary received cash worth PHP100,000, which comprises the Bangsamoro Transitory Family Support Package and Livelihood Settlement Grant.

The last part of the episode showed a clip of Marcos’ speech during the mass oath-taking of BTA members, particularly his description of the path to lasting peace as always being “under construction."

Beacon of hope

Galvez, meanwhile, said Marcos has become a beacon of hope, mutual understanding, unity, and solidarity among the Filipino people. This was further highlighted by Marcos' inaugural speech where he made a clarion call by stating that "we all want peace in our land."

"Under your administration’s banner of unity, the national government has aggressively pushed forward the comprehensive Philippine peace process, while ensuring that no one is left behind and are all part of your peacebuilding interventions," he said.

Galvez also lauded Marcos for leading the oath-taking of the newly-appointed members of the BTA last Aug. 12.

He added that this occasion became a testament to Marcos’ strong and full commitment to the Bangsamoro peace process.

"It also became a shining moment for the newest members of the BTA -- some of them the sons and daughters of the two major Moro groups -- who stood side by side and committed to continue the efforts of their parents to uplift the lives of the Bangsamoro people," Galvez said.

Galvez said the Chief Executive’s presence at the BTA inauguration sent a clear and strong signal that the Marcos administration is firm and determined, more than ever, to complete the implementation of all signed Bangsamoro peace agreements.

"Last Sept. 8, Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo and six other justices of the Supreme Court visited Marawi City as part of the Judiciary's efforts 'to actively help the Bangsamoro people achieve their dream of peace'.

During a meeting we had with House Speaker Ferdinand Romualdez, he threw Congress' full support behind the Bangsamoro, saying the Lower House will work closely with the region’s leadership to bring genuine peace and sustainable development in the area," Galvez said.

Under Marcos’ guidance, Special Assistant to the President Secretary Antonio Lagdameo Jr. hosted a meeting on Sept. 10 in Davao City with the top leadership of the BARMM headed by Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim.

"The gathering became a 'meeting of the minds,' as the national and BARMM governments were able to discuss pressing issues facing the Bangsamoro, and come up with key consensus points on how to address these concerns.

This meeting became an avenue for unity and solidarity in the Bangsamoro homeland," Galvez said.

On Sept. 11, the highest-ranking leaders of the MILF and MNLF -- Ebrahim Misuari -- met in Davao City and embraced each other, putting an end to the years of separation between them and their organizations.

"More than anything else, Mr. President, the reconciliation between the MILF and MILF symbolizes the vision of your administration to unify the Moro groups and shepherd them towards genuine and long-lasting peace, reconciliation and unity," Galvez said.

Galvez also noted that these "grizzled warriors" who have spent most of their lives on the battlefield have now made the full transition as civil servants and have dedicated themselves to ensuring peace, security, and development in the Bangsamoro.

Strategic victory vs. Reds

In the pursuit of lasting peace, the government is also sparing no effort in curbing the threat of communist insurgency that impedes development and sow terror in the countryside.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it has attained strategic victory over the threats posed by the communist movement and other local terrorist groups (LTGs) operating in the country.

Department of National Defense (DND) officer-in-charge Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. made this statement after the AFP reported more than 75 percent of the communist fronts in the country have been dismantled nationwide.

"Out of 89 in July 2016, there are only five active guerrilla fronts remaining,” he said in a statement.

He added that the capabilities of the communist rebels and LTGs have been significantly diminished over the last few years.

"The concerted efforts of the security sector have drawn us even closer to the end of the armed conflict with the inevitable collapse of these armed groups,” the DND chief said.

As of Sept. 20 this year, a total of 2,890 conflict-affected barangays have been cleared, through the AFP’s Development Support and Security Plan "Kapayapaan" and the DND's Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program.

From July 1, 2016 to Sept. 26, 2022, the AFP recorded a total of 10,608 regular NPA members neutralized, and more than 41,000 underground members, and sympathizers withdrew their support to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

A total of 4,644 LTG members were also neutralized during this period. Around 1,386 cities/municipalities and 31,254 barangays nationwide declared the CPP-NPA as persona non grata, signaling a widespread loss of support for the communist movement.

“This victory, of course, cannot be credited only to the DND and AFP. The gains we achieved were brought about by the harmonized endeavors of the national and local levels of government, as well as the active participation of relevant agencies and other stakeholders, through the whole-of-nation approach of the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict)," Faustino said.

“We are inching closer to total victory, and the defense organization is hopeful for the continued support of the Filipino people," he said.

Reds dwindling

The AFP earlier said it is now checking the identities of the passengers aboard a motorboat that exploded following an encounter with government troops during a "water interdiction operation" in Catbalogan, Samar in the early hours of Aug. 22.

This came after reports claimed that CPP-NPA-NDF chair Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma, the group's secretary general, and other communist personalities were among the passengers of the boat.

On Aug. 31 the Philippine Army said while efforts are ongoing to identify the human remains that have been recovered, some clues aided in coming up with the conclusion that the casualties are NPA members.

Joint Task Force Storm commander Maj. Gen. Edgardo De Leon said there were no reports of sea mishaps other than the Aug. 22 clash between government forces and suspected NPA members that occurred in Canhawan-Guti village, 2.6 kilometers from the shoreline, northeast of Catbalogan City, Samar.

The government search team has retrieved six bodies in the coastal waters of Catbalogan City, Tarangnan, and Sto. Niño, all in Samar province since the motorboat was believed to be carrying suspected NPA members.

The Tiamzon couple was arrested on March 22, 2014, and detained at Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, Camp Crame, Quezon City. They were granted bail in August 2016 in line with the resumption of peace negotiations under the administration of former President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

However, after the collapse of the peace talks in 2017, they refused to surrender and went back into hiding. They were said to be the ones in charge of the overall operation of the NPA.

On Nov. 27, 2020, the two were convicted for the kidnapping and serious illegal detention of Lt. Abraham Claro Casis and three other soldiers in Quezon in 1988 and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

Bloody bane

In his Oct. 2 column in the Manila Times, former AFP spokesperson, retired Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said a total of 1,343 Filipinos -- including women and infants -- were killed by the NPA upon orders of the CPP in just over a decade since 2011.

Of these numbers, 721 are non-combatant civilians including Machorao Malysha, a 4-month-old baby girl from Talakag town in Bukidnon.

Of the 81 persons killed by landmines laid by the NPA, 10 are civilians including Kieth Absalon of Masbate City, a rising football star of the Far Eastern University, and his cousin Nolven.

Not included in these numbers were 260 NPA commanders and followers who were killed on mere suspicion that they were government agents.

In his column, Arevalo said CPP founder Jose Maria "Joma" Sison was indicted as the mastermind in this atrocity.

Available documents indicate that the NPA has extorted around PHP9.058 billion from "fees" for "permits to campaign," "permits to win" and "revolutionary taxes" in only more than 13 years, from 2008 to 2021.

Arevalo said private corporations and government agencies that refused to yield to their unlawful demands lost PHP7.023 billion worth of private and public properties in 1,104 incidents of destructive arsons recorded from 1996 to 2021.

Excluded from this tally were those that were unreported by other victims for fear of reprisal from the rebels. (PNA)