Aquino witnesses historic MILF arms turnover

Angela Casauay
Aquino witnesses historic MILF arms turnover
Unique in the world, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front begins the first phase of a staggered decommissioning of its weapons in a tightly watched peace process

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Tuesday, June 16, turns over the first batch of its weapons in a bid to prove its commitment to peace.

President Benigno Aquino III arrived here at 10:30 am – the first time that he is setting foot in Maguindanao after the botched police operation in Mamasapano town that killed 67 Filipinos and almost derailed the ongoing peace process.  

Among those present in the ceremony are MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad, members of the International Monitoring Team, key Cabinet Secretaries, Armed Forces chief of staff General Gregorio Catapang Jr, National Police chief Leonardo Espina, local government officials, and the chief Malaysian facilitator Tengku Ghafar.

The decommissioning of MILF weapons comes at a crucial time when the law implementing the peace deal between the government and the MILF is facing lukewarm support in Congress. (READ: 4 scenarios if Bangsamoro bill is not passed)

For Muslim rebels, the event is made more meaningul as it comes just days before the holy month of Ramadan.

“Convincing the first batch was difficult,” Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF peace panel, told reporters before the program. “It’s one step away from surrendering.”

Tuesday’s ceremony marks the first time that a rebel group in the Philippines is undertaking a voluntary turnover of weapons as part of a peace deal. (READ: Real peace means the guns have to go away)

A total of 75 weapons, including 55 high-powered and 20 crew-serve ones, were deactivated to mark the beginning of the process, and 145 rebels out of the estimated 10,000 armed members of MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, now prepare to return to mainstream life. 

FOR TURNOVER. Some of the MILF's deactivated weapons. Rappler photo by Angela Casauay

Prior to this, there had only been surrenders – in the case of the Japanese-era Hukbalahap – and reintegration into the police and military – in the case of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), said Mario Aguja, a member of the International Decommissioning Body (IDB). 

This time around, there would be no element of surrender nor required integration of rebel forces. 

MILF weapons would be “put beyond use” and placed in the care of the IDB, not of the government. 

In exchange for deactivating their weapons, the combatants will get a socio-economic package that will depend on the kind of livelihood that they seek for themselves. The package can pay for their education, in the case of younger MILF members, or business capital for older ones. 

It will also include psycho-social support to help prepare for their shift to mainstream life. Qualified combatants may apply for the police or the military. 

Combatants will receive an initial cash package and Philhealth cards on Tuesday but the rest of the package will come in tranches, said National Security Council Undersecretary Zenaida Brosas.

Test case 

The first 145 members of MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, will serve as test cases for a peace process that is undergoing close scrutiny. 

Brosas said the age of the decommissioned combatants range from 18 years old to 30 years old, with a few veterans of the 4-decade armed conflict. 

On Tuesday morning, members of the IDB led by Turkey’s former ambassador to NATO, Haydar Berk, will interview combatants in Camp Darapanan before the actual turnover ceremonies. 

The IDB will also process the 75 weapons to be decommissioned. All firearms have to be verified as “serviceable.”

The combatants and the firearms will be transported in separate vehicles to the gymnasium behind the old capitol in Sultan Kudarat town in ceremonies open to the public and the media. 

It will take 6 minutes to process each combatant, said retired Major General Leo Cresente Ferrer. They will receive non-transferrable IDs that would allow them to access the socio-economic packages available for them. 

Once the combatants are formally decommissioned, the firearms will be transported to the weapons storage area in Camp Abubakar, the former bastion of the MILF that was run over by government forces during the Estrada regime’s 2000 all-out war against the rebels. 

A double-fenced, 20-footer container van equipped with CCTV will serve as the storage facility. Joint teams from the government and the MILF – supervised by the IDB – will guard the facility round the clock. 

SYMBOLIC. This first batch of firearms will be turned over to a third party under a staggered decommissioning process. Rappler photo by Angela Casauay

Unique in the world

The decommissioning process agreed upon under the peace deal is unique in the world.

Unlike most cases for rebel groups in other countries, the turnover of MILF weapons will be staggered and anchored on political commitments under the peace deal. 

Thirty percent of MILF firearms will be decommissioned once the proposed Bangsamoro basic law, which seeks to create a new autonomous region in Mindanao with greater powers and resources, is passed in Congress and ratified in a plebiscite. 

Another 35% will be deactivated once the Bangsamoro government and its police force are established. The remaining 35% will be turned over once the exit agreement signifying that the peace deal has been implemented is signed. (READ: Gov’t, MILF sign protocol for arms decommissioning)

Both the government and the MILF have so far refused to disclose the total number of weapons that group owns. 

A tight timeline, Aquino’s legacy

During his term, Aquino managed to achieve many firsts in relation to the peace process. 

He was the first President to set foot in the MILF’s current stronghold – Camp Darapanan – in peacetime.   

He was the first President to hold an unprecedented meeting with a rebel leader abroad, MILF chair Murad “Al Haj” Ebrahim, in Japan.

He was the first President to acknowledge the Jabidah Massacre – said to be the spark that lit the Moro rebellion – right where it happened on Corregidor Island.  

On Tuesday, he becomes the first President to witness the voluntary decommissioning of firearms by no less than what the government considers as the largest organized armed group in the Philippines. 

Yet it is also under Aquino’s watch when the Mamasapano tragedy occurred – the single biggest event that shook public faith in the process and the MILF, and caused the President’s ratings to plummet.

Despite the setbacks, the government and the MILF hope to finish decommissioning all rebel forces before Aquino steps down from office in 2016. 

But with only a year to go before a new administration takes over, the peace process is constrained by a tight timeline. 

With the new October deadline that Congress set to pass the Bangsamoro bill, it remains to be seen whether the Aquino administration would achieve its peace goals. – Rappler.com

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