MILF leader: We have removed war from our vocabulary

Angela Casauay
MILF leader: We have removed war from our vocabulary
Once the Bangsamoro government is established, the MILF hopes to bring back the old glory of Camp Abubakar and make it a model of governance

LANAO DEL SUR, Philippines – It is Ramadan and a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp in Butig town, Lanao del Sur appears deserted at about 9am.

The MILF camp is located just a few kilometers away from the house of the town mayor. A few kilometers away, a mosque with a gold-painted roof glistens in the morning sun. 

MILF 2nd vice chairman Alim Pangalian, also known as Alim Ali Solaiman, is based in this camp. 

He was was one of the 3 MILF commanders – along with the late Ameril Umra Kato, founder of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Abdullah “Commander Bravo” Macapaar – who was accused of ordering attacks on communities in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte after the Memorandum on Agreement on Ancestral Domains were struck down in 2008. Authorities offered a P5 million reward for Pangalian’s arrest.

He continues to deny the accusations. He said he has never laid hands “not even a pinch on anybody’s life.” He also denied allegations that he ordered his men to burn down houses. 

In his camp there are no barbed wires or monitoring posts out in the open. Instead, rectangular banners brandishing the word “Bangsamoro” adorn the fence surrounding his office. Just across the gate is a covered multi-purpose space. Located nearby is a pilot elementary school and a madrasah (Muslim school). A few meters away are houses of MILF sympathizers. 

In his office, a map showing the proposed core areas of a new autonomous region to be known as Bangsamoro occupies an entire wall. 

On the first day of Ramadan, Pangalian grants Rappler an interview. He wears an outfit befitting of an imam to show, he said, that he is religious. 

SATELLITE CAMP. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front community in Butig, Lanao del Sur is located a few kilometers away from the residence of the town mayor. Photo by Rappler

With the peace process with the MILF in advanced stages, the MILF leader is hardly a fugitive from the law nowadays. 

Pangalian was present when President Benigno Aquino III graced the symbolic turnover of 75 MILF firearms at the old capitol in Sultan Kudarat town in the nearby province of Maguindanao on June 16. 

MILF and Camp Abubakar

He was one of the MILF leaders who were able to visit Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao to see the storage facility for the decommissioned rebel firearms. 

Camp Abubakar used to be the MILF’s main camp until it was overtaken by government forces during the 2000 all-out war.

It was in this community where the rebel group – led by the late Salamat Hashim – ran a system of government based on the Shari’ah law – living out their vision for what an independent nation under the MILF would be like. The MILF agreed to drop its call for secession when it entered into talks with the Aquino government.

Camp Abubakar, also known as Camp Iranun, is located about 2 hours away from Cotabato City. The MILF’s present stronghold, the smaller Camp Darapanan, is located just 20 minutes away from the city center. 

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal has said that the camp was chosen as the location to store MILF firearms due to its symbolism – from bearing the stigma of war, it will now serve as an icon for reconciliation. 

The symbolic turnover of firearms to the Independent Decommissioning Body marked the first time that Pangalian was able to return to what was once the rebel’s mother camp. 

He said he is “happy” that event allowed him to visit their former stronghold – made even more special by the fact that it came days before Ramadan.

SYMBOLIC. The storage facility in Camp Abubakar, also known as Camp Iranun, in Maguindanao is secured by a joint team from the Moro Isamic Liberation Front and the government, and supervised by the Independent Decommissioning Body. Photo from OPAPP

Pangalian revealed that under the normalization agreement, the government agreed to remove soldiers from Camp Abubakar and allow original inhabitants, including MILF members and their families, to return to their homes.

Under the peace deal signed in March 2014, the government committed to redeploy armed troops assigned in Bangsamoro core areas while the decommissioning process is ongoing. 

Meanwhile, MILF camps would be turned into civilian communities. 

Once the Bangsamoro government is established, the MILF hopes to bring back the old glory of Camp Abubakar and make it a model of governance, Pangalian said. 

“If ever Camp Abubakar will be returned to us, then we’re going to make a community out of it. Build houses for the mujahideens (fighters), and schools and mosques for the children. We’ll make it productive and useful. We could be a role model and a guide for them to see how good leadership accomplishes tasks,” Pangalian said in Maranao.

But there is a long way to go. Pangalian is aware that there are many who doubt the sincerity of the MILF. 

Asked about the wide perception that Moros cannot live without guns, Pangalian said: “Those are simply allegations by judgmental people who have not yet known the real and whole story about how and why Moro people live like this,” he said. 

It was difficult to convince the first 145 MILF combatants to decommission due to fears that the process would be tantamount to surrender. MILF chairperson Murad Ebrahim earlier said they explained to their men that the firearms would be turned over to a third-party body and not to the government. The process would also signal the return to mainstream life, not surrender. (READ: ‘Old comrades’ return to civilian life)

Under the peace accord, the decommissioning process is staggered and depends on political commitments. Because of this, the MILF will not decommission if the BBL is not passed and the proposed Bangsamoro government is established.

But what if the BBL is passed and yet the content of the BBL is diluted? (READ: 4 scenarios if Bangsamoro bill is not passed)

The MILF leadership has been consistent in saying that it will not accept a law that renders the Bangsamoro less powerful than the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. 

Will the MILF then resort to war? Pangalian gave an answer consistent with rest of the MILF leadership – that the group will continue to talk peace.

“We have already removed in our vocabularies the word war,” Pangalian said. 

What he is also hoping for is that a general amnesty for MILF rebels would be implemented. Since the war began in the 70s, about 150,000 individuals, including combatants, police, soldiers, and civilians, have been killed. 

“If you were wondering, why are we hiding or staying in a deep and faraway jungle when we have just enough place for us to stay in the city? Is it because we are guilty of something, are we hiding something or we’re not considered a true Bangsamoro people, are we uncivilized for living in the jungle? The answer to that questions my dear children is simply because there is no such thing as what we call justice for the Bangsamoro. That’s why,” he said. 

In Butig, the relative calm in the warm June morning is betrayed by sights of burned down houses. The town, after all, is one of the areas that bore the brunt of the all-out war during the Estrada administration. 

Rido

It is not only the months-long hostilities that have plagued the town. Rido or clan wars are also a culprit.

In one corner, a row of houses destroyed by gunfire due to a conflict between two families serve as testaments to the complex and volatile peace in the area. To stop the fight, a PNP detachment was set up in the middle of the houses of the warring clans. The conflict has been resolved but the burned down houses remain deserted. 

RUINS. One of the houses destroyed by rido or clan wars in Butig, Lanao del Sur. Photo by Rappler

When the MILF decommissions, what would happen to other groups who own firearms?

According to Pangalian, if the proposed BBL will pass, the MILF leadership will negotiate with these groups and convince them to turn over their arms. They could sell their firearms and use the money to perform Hajj in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or invest it in business. 

“We are pretty much confident that we could do these things easily without having any mishaps,” he said. 

When congressional sessions resume in July, Pangalian’s appeal to Congress is for lawmakers to get on with work that would allow for “harmonious existence.” 

“One Moro nation, one Moro consciousness. One country, one love,” he said. “We still belong and live in the Philippines and we are Filipino.”  Rappler.com

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