LAST Thursday, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines sat down with Murad Ibrahim, his country’s public enemy number one.
Murad heads the outlawed Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has long fought for self-rule in western Mindanao, where Muslim Moros form the majority.
The astonishing rendezvous at a suburban Tokyo hotel was initiated by Aquino, who affirmed in his State of the Nation address last month that resolving the Mindanao conflict was a priority.
That said, their meeting was planned with such limpet secrecy that no one outside their inner circles knew the two leaders had travelled to Japan.
Murad had to get from the MILF’s clandestine base in the jungle outside Cotabato City all the way to the Ana Crowne Hotel in faraway Narita.
It recalls my own strange and fretful quest to interview Murad several years ago.
At that time, he led the movement’s fearsome military wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, whose clashes with the Philippine Army have led to more than 100,000 deaths.
Not unnaturally, Murad faced murder charges. And unlike now, there was no internationally-monitored ceasefire in force.
So my own travel plans were also cloaked in secrecy and subterfuge, though franky it was of a rather cockeyed kind.
I flew via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Cebu, to Davao City, Mindanao’s main metropolis and the nation’s second largest city.
There, I sought a driver to take me over the Mount Apo cordillera and on westwards for 100 kilometres to Cotabato City, whose airport had been knocked out by Murad’s men.
It was not easy, because the road traversed eight designated “conflict areas” controlled by the MILF.
When I asked a government official if it was safe to drive there in the daytime, he said: “Not sure.”
Finally, I found Felix Junior – just call me “Jun”, who, for a fairly hefty fee, seemed happy to take me. At least, he was until we stopped halfway at the village of Kabacan.
As I stretched my legs in the early evening, Jun sidled over and said he would go no further because it was too dangerous.
I pleaded with him, offered him an extra bonus, and when a racketty minibus went by, I said we’d be safe if we tucked in behind it.
Looking pained and rolling his head, he grudgingly agreed to continue; but we never caught up with the bus and it soon began to rain.
When we entered rebel territory, unmanned road barriers appeared – some were real security fences, others just tree trunks or boulders.
They extended alternately from each side to the middle of the road so that we often had to zigzag slowly in the stormy blackness with not a single other vehicle around.
It was petrifying, but somehow we eventually reached Cotabato, where the ill-lit streets were marked with grafitti demanding ‘Independence Now!’
On my hotel door there was a sign saying: “Bomb Threat: What to do, what not to do,” followed by a list of instructions.
Next morning, after chasing up one contact after another, word came to station myself outside the Jollibee Restaurant at noon.
When I did so, a motorbike sped up and took me off to the riverside where a small open boat was filling up with country folk laden with groceries.
After chugging upstream for half an hour, the boatman motioned me to get off and pointed to a bungalow in the distance.
I scrambled over there, and a few minutes later, Murad entered with some MILF fighters, all in spiffy uniforms with glistening machine-guns.
It was a rewarding interview, as I trust was the encounter he had with Aquino last week.
Times have changed and the more conciliatory Murad now seeks only autonomy, not full independence.
And Aquino, after a transition period that will hopefully prove autonomy does not mean more corruption, poverty and violence, seems willing to contemplate a future Moro sub-state.
The sooner it happens the better.