It was not very comfortable to sit beside and in front of people who may have wished me dead in the past and who considered me as their Number One Enemy.
I was warned against going to Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, the main enclave of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) by those who knew how fiercely I and the MILF leadership went against each other during the years when I was Governor and later Vice Governor of North Cotabato.
To the MILF, I was the Anti-Moro who stood up against the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), a land grabber who dispossessed the Bangsamoro of their land and who caused the death of many of their warriors.
Because of me, the Supreme Court of the Philippines declared the MOA-AD as unconstitutional and that was a sentimental issue for the MILF.
To me the MILF, was a band of unreasonable revolutionaries who attacked the villages of North Cotabato, who caused untold miseries to the farming families in the hinterlands of the province and who attempted to assassinate me several times, including the failed bombing attempt in a radio station in Kidapawan City.
In spite of the warnings, I insisted I would go and since I was in the U.S. on the date it was supposed to have been held, I asked that it be moved to March 8.
Honestly, the visit would not have been possible if my friend, Rody Duterte, was not elected President.
While I was against the MOA-AD because it was crafted without consulting the stakeholders in the areas to be affected and included in the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, President Duterte, even when he was Mayor of Davao City, has always been sympathetic to the Moro Cause.
I had the same feelings too but I hated the bloody bombings and attacks perpetrated in the name of a revolution.
My visit to Camp Darapanan on Wednesday, March 8, was made after PhilRice Executive Director Dr. Sailila Abdula asked me to be the guest of honour in the graduation of 360 former MILF combatants in the Upland Rice-Based Farming System.
Sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the program intends to train MILF combatants in agriculture as part of the preparation for the Normalization Phase of the Peace Agreement between the Philippine Government and the MILF.
MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said during his speech during the ceremony that when the MILF leadership was asked whether they would agree to my presence in the Camp, there were those who expressed reservations.
“Hindi ba Anti-Moro yan si Piñol?,” he said sending the crowd to laughter.
But Chairman Murad said he prevailed saying that my visit to the Camp could be a major step in putting a close to the animosity between me and the MILF in the past.
I have never been afraid to confront issues thrown against me in the past and one by one during my talk, which was punctuated by laughter of the crowd, I addressed the accusations against me in the past.
“Alam ko na marami sa inyo galit sa akin. Ang tawag nyo sa akin Anti-Moro at maaring ginawa nyo pa na target paper ang mga campaign posters ko,” I said as I opened my speech.
“I would like to open my heart before you and show you who the real Manny Piñol is,” I said.
On the issue of me being Anti-Moro, I asked: “Sino ang Moro na pinatay ko?” (Name me a Moro who I killed.)
On the issue of land grabbing, I dared the crowd: “Point out to me the land which I grabbed from the Moro and you can have it.”
On the issue that I hate the Moros because of a failed love affair with a young Moro woman when I was a young disc jockey working for a radio station in Cotabato City, I said: “We were in love. I was deeply in love with her. But her parents did not like me because I am a Christian, not even after I said I was willing to convert to Islam just to marry her.”
“Iniyakan ko yon. Uminom ako ng maraming Tanduay at naglasing,” I told the crowd which burst into laughter, including Chairman Murad and the top leaders of the MILF. (I cried because of that. I drank a lot of Tanduay Rhum and got drunk.)
After the laughters, I gave the crowd a more profound explanation of why things happened the way they did.
“Our lives in this world are all part of a big play where we all perform roles. Chairman Murad’s role is that of a defender of the Bangsamoro and their rights and he has performed his role very well and I admire him for that,” I said.
“My role then as Governor of North Cotabato was to defend the lives and properties of the people of my province and anybody who threatened them was my enemy. I believe I played that role very well too although you hated me because of that,” I continued.
“My role today in this big drama of life that we are all in is that of a worker of President Duterte and Secretary of Agriculture and I will perform this role to the best of my ability,” I declared.
“Let us learn from the past but let it not stand in the way of our journey towards tomorrow for a peaceful and progressive country which President Duterte would like to achieve in his time,” I concluded.
Chairman Murad responded to my speech by saying that the MILF has found a new friend in their former enemy and that he welcomed the support of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) to the peace process.
“Salamat sa ating Presidente. Meron na tayong kaibigan na Secretary of Agriculture. Meron na tayong bagong idol,” he said.
After the ceremony, I felt that the burden that I had long carried on my back for so long, that is the pain of being accused Anti-Moro in spite of my having so many Moro friends, has finally been unloaded.
When I embraced Chairman Murad to say goodbye, I felt the warmth of his friendship.
I promised him I would come back to help him pursue his dream of a better life for his people.