Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has invited the terror group Abu Sayyaf to negotiate peace, disregarding a longstanding government policy against talking to a terrorist group blamed for the beheadings of foreign hostages in the south.
During a trip to the southern island of Jolo on Friday, Duterte called on the Abu Sayyaf to lay down their arms and talk peace, emphasizing that the Bangsamoro Organic Law that he had signed last week was expected to lead to peace and development to the southern island of Mindanao.
“Let's not fight till our forces and resources are depleted. Let's just negotiate,” Duterte said, according to transcripts of the speech that was made public on Monday. “To the Abu Sayyaf, let's just negotiate.”
He said he would also award the Abu Sayyaf the Order of Lapu-Lapu if they agreed to his peace offering. Duterte created the award in April last year to recognize individuals who provide “invaluable or extraordinary service in nation to a campaign or advocacy of the president.”
“Those Abu Sayyaf who want a Lapu-Lapu medal, tell them that when I return, I will personally pin it on them,” he said. “But I ask for no war.”
It was not clear if Duterte made the comment in jest, and his spokesman, Harry Roque, struggled to give an answer when asked by journalists in Manila Monday.
If it was a joke however, it was clearly done in bad taste.
The Philippines has a policy against negotiating with terrorists, specially a group that has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States and is wanted for a string atrocities stretching back to the 1990s.
Apart from deadly bombings, the group is wanted for the beheadings of hostages, including a German national and two Canadians during the last two years. It was also blamed for the blowing up a passenger ferry on Manila Bay that killed more than 100 people in 2004.
One of its commanders, Isnilon Hapilon, became the head of the Philippines’ Islamic State faction and last year led an attack on the southern city of Marawi, a former major Muslim trading hub. The five-month siege destroyed the city and left at least 1,200 people dead, most of them militants.
Roque on Monday said that Duterte may be signaling that he was “willing to accept surrenders from the ASG.”
“So what he means is: surrender and you would be given a new lease on life,” Roque said. “So, it’s really an enticement for the ASG to surrender.”
Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law on Thursday, which was expected to lead to an expansion of an autonomous region in the south that would be governed by a parliament.
The law came after years of negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the country’s main separatist force that signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. Under the deal, the MILF is to lead a transitional government until new officials are elected.
Former MILF camps would also be transformed into civilian communities where the national government would retain police and military powers.
But while analysts have welcomed the new law, smaller armed groups outside of the MILF continue to engage the military in attacks, including those who had escaped during the Marawi clashes and were believed to be recruiting new fighters.
On Sunday, the MILF held consultations with Muslim residents near its camp outside the city of Cotabato, and said the new law does not mean an end to the MILF, which promised to transform itself into a political party.
“The immediate challenge is extremists,” MILF chief Murad Ebrahim told reporters. “Extremism is penetrating the MILF areas now.”
Froilan Gallardo from Cagayan de Oro City contributed to this report.