Mindanao closer to peace as MILF decommissions 12,000 fighters – gov't

MANILA, Philippines – What the people in charge did not realize was they were going to need many wheelchairs when the former rebels descended on Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, to be decommissioned as soldiers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Because the process of transitioning the 40,000-strong Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) back to civilian life is spread out over several years, the MILF decided to put their older fighters ahead of the queue, because if they waited longer, they might not live to see the end of their struggle.

On Saturday, September 7, a ceremony to be led by President Rodrigo Duterte at Maguindanao’s old provincial capitol will herald the decommissioning of 12,000 MILF fighters – 30% of the BIAF – premised on the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law last January.

This second phase of the MILF’s normalization process began on August 26 with the decommissioning of 30 of its combatants who were so advanced in age that the facilitators from the foreign-led Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity (OPAPRU) realized the need for wheelchairs.

Now in their twilight, these former rebels have spent much of their lives fighting the government for self-determination as the Moro people, fortunate not to have been killed in the armed conflict that began in the 1970s.

BIAF soldiers will be decommissioned in batches, including 1,060 on Saturday itself, until the 12,000 requirement is fulfilled by early 2020, after which the third phase of the process is expected to begin.

All 40,000 combatants are expected to be decommissioned by 2022.

The MILF has prepared a list of every single soldier who will be decommissioned, who will present themselves on scheduled dates before the IDB panel, who will verify their identity, and issue them a card certifying that they have been decommissioned and have subscribed to the government’s normalization program for them.

On top of other forms of aid from the government, each decommissioned former rebel will receive P100,000 in cash and livelihood assistance, while their families will get P500,000 to P1,000,000 in housing, scholarships, healthcare aid. Such help is to set them on the path to normal, post-conflict lives, Chief Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr told reporters earlier this week.

Ipapakita natin ‘yung sincerity ng MILF eh. Napaka-importante ng decommissioning kasi ito ang magrerepresent na talagang they are ready to change their lives (We will show the sincerity of the MILF. Decommissioning is very important because this will represent that they really are ready to change their lives)," Galvez said.

The MILF will reportedly also put forward some 900 firearms for decommissioning on Saturday.

The first phase of the MILF’s decommissioning happened in June 2015, when 145 of its soldiers laid down their arms, symbolized by 75 firearms handed over to the IDB.

This definitive chapter of the long-drawn-out peace process between the government and Moro rebels – first with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 and now with the MILF – came to a head with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in March 2014, under President Benigno Aquino III.

The process hit a snag in January 2015, when a police operation to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Marwan in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, led to an armed encounter between the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) and MILF troops. Forty-four PNP-SAF commandos, at least 17 MILF fighters, and 5 civilians were killed.

As the peace process tarried, splinter groups from the MNLF and the MILF, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freeedom Fighters (BIFF), and the Maute Group launched their own attacks on civilian communities and government forces, some resorting to banditry and terrorism.

In May 2017, the Islamic State or ISIS-linked Maute Group laid siege to Marawi City in Lanao del Sur. More than 1,000 people were killed in 5 months of fighting, of which around 900 were terrorists, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The battle for Marawi alerted the government to the need for the implementation of the 2014 peace deal with the MILF to hopefully rein in the different armed groups in Mindanao and gradually end the conflict.

Galvez said that as the MILF takes over full governance of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the other armed groups may be expected to follow suit or be rendered irrelevant.

“Because when we talked with the MILF, nakita namin, pati ‘yung mga BIFF at saka mga Abu Sayyaf, 'pagka nakita nila na naging maganda ang kinalabasan ng normalisasyon at saka ng decommissioning, ay talagang magbababa na rin sila ng mga baril,” Galvez added.

(Because when we talked with the MILF, we saw that even the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf, when they see the good outcome of the normalization and decommissioning, they will really lay down their arms, too.)

Last June, an attack on an Army camp in Indanan, Sulu, by two suicide bombers – one a Filipino – marked an escalation in terror tactics by local insurgents. The AFP afterwards reported the presence in Sulu of foreign terrorists with links to ISIS, suspected to be working with the ASG.

Meanwhile, MNLF leader Nur Misuari has been pressing the government to deliver on unfulfilled items on the government's 1996 Peace Agreement with the MNLF.

As the government sorts this out with the MNLF, Galvez said the group might be enlisted to help fight the ASG in Sulu, which is the MNLF’s turf. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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