Government wants MILF to give up more weapons

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) scrambled to collect more weapons on the eve of the decommissioning ceremony on Saturday, September 7, to increase the number of weapons to present to President Rodrigo Duterte.

BARMM chief minister Murad Ebrahim, who is also MILF chairman, on Friday, September 6, promised the former rebel group will give up more than 1,000 weapons during the ceremony – increasing the initial announcement of 920 weapons – which would closely match the total 1,060 MILF fighters to be decommissioned.

"We're trying to maximize so that others would be part of the event tomorrow. We are seeing that there are more than 1,000. The JNC (Joint Normalization Committee) had a discussion on this.... Since the President is coming, let's maximize to include weapons in  nearby areas. We will be increasing the 920 to more than 1,000," Ebrahim said in a mix of Filipino and English in a media forum on Friday.

Ebrahim said high-powered weapons such as RPG7 and 50 caliber machine guns are among the weapons MILF give up during the ceremony. 

The decommissioning process is a critical stage in the peace process, a commitment the MILF made in exchange for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The former rebel group is now under pressure from the government, which raised questions about the disparity between the number of MILF fighters and the weapons to be decommissioned.

40,000 fighters but only 7,000 weapons 

The MILF said it has 40,000 fighters but only about 7,000 weapons. This means the weapons the MILF will give up on Saturday already comprise about a third of the 2,100 weapons it will decommission in the first phase of the decommissioning process.

Chief Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr was frank but expressed understanding during the media forum. He said he believed the MILF declaration was “very conservative” but added that he understood combatants are hesitant to give up their weapons because of the existence of other armed groups in the region.

“I believe the firearms they declared is very conservative because I saw that almost all the combatants had firearms,” said Galvez, who served as Philippine military chief before he took the helm of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).

“There is a struggle. Alam naming nahihirapan ang mga combatants dahil nandiyan pa ang mga BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) at private armed groups (We know it is hard for them [to give up their guns] especially because the BIFF remains a threat and there are other private armed groups),” Galvez said.

Galvez hailed MILF efforts to show goodwill in volunteering to decommission more or less 600 rounds of RPGs. 

Murad explained many of the MILF fighters used their own weapons or were issued weapons borrowed from civilians. He said the MILF will encourage its fighters and even civilians to give up privately owned weapons but this would require a different decommissioning arrangement.

IDB is satisfied 

The exchange between Galvez and MILF personalities during the forum put on display a growing issue in the decommissioning process. It highlighted real challenges in asking hardened combatants, who had relied on their weapons for decades, to decommission especially when they lived in neighborhoods where different armed groups operate.

"Why do people want firearms? Why are they purchasing firearms? Sometimes our combatants are saying I can separate from my wife but not from my weapon. It’s very valuable to them. Why is that? Because of survival. They feel that they cannot survive without their firearms," Murad said.

It is the responsibility of the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) – composed of representatives from Turkey, Norway, and Brunei – to conduct inventory, verification, validation of firearms and weapons of the MILF armed component Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

SATISFIED. IDB chairman Ambassador Fatih Ulusoy hail the sincerity of both parties. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

SATISFIED. IDB chairman Ambassador Fatih Ulusoy hail the sincerity of both parties.

Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

As both parties sort out the issue, Turkish Ambassador Fatih Ulusoy, IDB chairman,  hailed the commitment of both parties to work together. “This decommissioning process is a firm demonstration of the parties’ sincerity and commitment to the peace process,” Ulusoy said during the forum.

"The cooperation and coordination among government, MILF and the IDB has been exemplary. We look forward to a seamless coordination of this process in the upcoming phases as agreed with the parties. The IDB acknowledges the impact of this process, which does not only promote peace to the region in Mindanao but the whole Philippines and beyond," he added. 

Call for understanding

MILF peace implementing panel chair Mohagher Iqbal also sought for understanding. He said instability in many parts of Muslim Mindanao continued to compel people to keep their own guns.

“If there is peace, development, and justice on the ground, that will ensure that people’s psyche will change. If the situation is so unpeaceful then that would also condition the mindset of people to arming themselves,” said Iqbal.

Iqbal said changing people’s mindset might take a while. The decommissioning process is expected to be completed in next 3 years. In the first phase, at least 30% of the fighters and weapons should be decommissioned by April 2020. 

Galvez said he understands the MILF fighters but he is determined to rid Mindanao of loose firearms.

Galvez said the Joint Peace and Security Teams they are establishing – composed of a mix of MILF fighters, soldiers, and police – will be the ones to take care of other armed groups threatening the security situation in the region. Several JPST teams have been formed but their performance have yet to be tested.

Galvez said he was drawing from his experience as a brigade commander cooperating with the local government in Basilan. “If the government will ensure that the children will have scholarships, the fighters will give up all their guns. I believe this is true if they feel the government is really helping them and if there is no more necessity for the firearms to be kept. They have sold most of their firearms to buy farm implements,” he said.

Galvez said he is hoping that the socio-economic packages for the MILF fighters will “entice, inspire, and motivate” them to give up even their personal firearms.

Firearms control law, martial law

Galvez said the only way to ensure enduring peace in Mindanao is to get rid of loose firearms. 

“We believe we can only have enduring peace if we don’t have the tools including the ammunitions and including weapons...used towards perpetrating violence. That is our hope,” Galvez added.

He laid out a government plan to aggressively enforce the firearms control law and even maximize martial law to enforce this. He said the Western Mindanao Command and the JPSTs will also take care of addressing rido or clan wars, disbanding private armed groups, and dealing with other armed groups including ISIS-linked organizations.

“While we are decommissioning, we will implement firearms control. We will also create a national task force to disband the private armed group. This is a simultaneous removing of the tools of violence in Mindanao," said Galvez.

“We are looking forward in 2020 or 2021 the firearms that will be decommissioned will be higher,” said Galvez. – Rappler.com