MILF to deactivate weapons, store them in Abubakar

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – When the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) puts the first batch of its weapons beyond use on Tuesday, June 16, the firearms will be stored in the rebel group's former stronghold in Maguindanao. 

Camp Abubakar, now known as Camp Iranun of the Army's 603rd brigade, holds the perfect symbolism to mark the beginning of the rebel group's return to mainstream life as the passage of the law implementing its peace deal with the government faces uncertain support in Congress. 

The MILF's former bastion had been a thriving self-sufficient community until government troops ran it over when former President Joseph Estrada launched an all-out war against the rebel group in 2000. 

To celebrate the capture of the camp, Estrada brought in truckloads of beer and lechon (roast pig) inside a Madrasah school – a move that angered Muslims.

But Camp Abubakar is now set to become the symbol of the reconciliation process between former foes. 

"The stigma of the unjust war in 2000 will be swept away in pursuit of just peace," MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told Rappler. 

A facility in the camp will serve as the storage area for the 55 high-powered and 20 crew-served weapons that are set to be turned over by the MILF to an independent third-party body. 

In ceremonies to be led by President Benigno Aquino III in the old capitol in Sultan Kudarat, a total of 145 MILF members are also set to undergo decommissioning. Most of them were veterans of the 2000 war, government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer earlier said. They will receive socio-economic packages in exchange. 

Military estimates show the MILF has about 10,000 armed members.

Staggered basis

Under the peace deal signed in March 2014, the MILF committed to decommission its firearms in exchange for the creation of a new autonomous region in Mindanao that is parliamentary in form with greater powers and resources.

The decommissioning process is staggered and is anchored on political commitments towards the creation of the Bangsamoro government.

Thirty percent of MILF firearms will be decommissioned once the proposed Bangsamoro basic law is ratified.

Another 35% will be turned over when the Bangsamoro government and its police force are established, while the remaining 35% will be decommissioned once the exit agreement signifying that all commitments were fulfilled, is signed.

Both the government and the MILF have refused to disclose the number of weapons that the MILF owns. 

Third party

The MILF has stressed that there would be no element of surrender in the process. Rebel firearms will be turned over – not to the government – but to the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) led by Turkey's former ambassador to NATO, Haydar Berk. 

Joint teams from the government and the MILF – to be supervised by a third-party body – will guard the storage area. 

A total of 30 members from both sides will compose the Joint Peace and Security Teams. The Joint Verification and Monitoring Team (JVMT), which is led by a foreign expert with a member from the government and the MILF each, will supervise the security teams. 

Three JVMTs will take turns administering the site round the clock, according to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. Teams of 10 JPST personnel from the MILF and the government each will be on guard duty at all times. 

Tuesday's development comes as the peace process continues to reel from the tragedy in Mamasapano town, which killed dozens of Filipinos. The impact of the clash has been made apparent by the delay in passing the Bangsamoro bill in Congress.

It would mark the first time that Aquino is setting foot in Maguindanao after the Mamasapano tragedy – an incident that brought about the President's public opinion ratings to record lows

Confidence-building 

Armed Forces chief of staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang on Monday, June 15, called the scheduled event "historic." 

“There is no denying that the willingness of the MILF to decommission their weapons is a concrete proof of their commitment as a peace partner. I commend the members of the GPH and MILF peace panels for making this a reality,” Catapang said. 

Lawmakers also lauded the MILF's voluntary decommissioning of firearms as part of the peace deal. 

Senate President Franklin Drilon said Monday that the move will be "a very important confidence-building step" – one that is much needed after the January 25 Mamasapano clash cast doubts on the sincerity of the MILF on the peace process. 

The ceremonial turnover of firearms was supposed to happen in January but the tragedy, and subsequent military offensives in the midst of postponements in deliberating the Bangsamoro bill in Congress, pushed back the date.

Sulu Representative Tupay Loong said the MILF should be lauded for pushing through with the turnover of firearms despite the volatile situation in the area. 

“We should all understand the security situation. There are still other armed groups with weapons on the ground, yet the MILF is already willing to begin decommissioning for the sake of peace in Mindanao,” Loong said. – with Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler.com