Crackdown on firearms, private armies a priority for Bangsamoro gov't – Murad

MANILA, Philippines – Controlling loose firearms and the dismantling of private armies in Muslim Mindanao will be the security priorities of the new Bangsamoro government.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim, on Tuesday, January 22, said these would be among the first steps of the interim Bangsamoro government once it is convened.

"We see that the big issue here is how to control the firearms, the weapons, because frankly, this is the main problem in the area because there are so many loose firearms," he said during a Rappler Talk interview in Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat.

"The private armies have to be dismantled. It is agreed with the government so we will jointly undertake that," he added.

To the effort of controlling loose firearms, he said the MILF will contribute by decommissioning some of its weapons and combatants.

Under the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the MILF are supposed to decommission – or retire from active duty – 30% of its combatants and weapons after the BOL's ratification, which the Commission on Elections had announced last Friday, January 26.

Murad had previously said the MILF has "30,000 to 40,000" members in its armed wing, Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, and "6,000 to 7,000" firearms. This means 9,000 to 12,000 combatants and 1,800 to 2,100 weapons must soon be decommissioned.

But private armies are also an issue involving Muslim Mindanao's powerful political families. Private armies of the Ampatuans of Maguindanao for instance, were involved in the infamous 2009 Maguindanao massacre that killed 58 people. (VISUALS: Power brokers in the Bangsamoro region)

Murad said such private armies will be dismantled and that Duterte himself has taken the first step.

"The President has already started instructing the local government to surrender loose firearms," he said.

Joint security teams

Only two days after the ratification of the BOL, twin blasts in a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu claimed 20 lives, underscoring the persistent security issues in what will now become the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The BOL creates the BARMM and its interim government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), pending appointment of its members by President Rodrigo Duterte.

MILF chairman Murad is expected to be named Chief Minister of the BTA.

During the critical transition period – when the BTA is convened until the 2022 elections of BARMM officials – the BTA will form a joint security team composed ofthe Philippine National Police, Armed Forces of the Philippines, and MILF members.

"We will have a joint security – we call it JPST – joint peace and security teams. This will be composed of MILF combatants, PNP, and AFP. This will take care of the security in the region for the meantime that we are not able to strengthen the regional police," he said.

In the BOL, defense and security of the BARMM is still the responsibility of the national government. However, there will be a National Police Commission Bangsamoro Regional Office whose director will be appointed by the Interior Secretary.

The ARMM, the region to be replaced by BARMM, has a regional police force, but Murad said it needs to be strengthened.

"There is already an existing regional police but we need to strengthen in order to cope up with the security situation. So before it is strengthened, we will have the JPST as security measures," said Murad.

Confident about fight vs ISIS

The MILF chief also expressed confidence that the Bangsamoro government and national government will be able to fight off international terror group ISIS' influence in Muslim Mindanao.

"Now, we see that we can easily counter the ISIS," he said.

The ISIS claimed responsibility for the Sulu bombing, according to SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist activities.

Murad, whom we interviewed before the bombing, however, said that terror groups in the region are "not still part of the ISIS but they are trying to connect to the ISIS just for resources, for funding reasons."

He said local terror groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group are not so much allying with ISIS for ideological reasons but "more for survival" so "they can get some funding."

The national government's agreements with Malaysia and Indonesia, Southeast Asian countries which are also vulnerable to terror attacks by Muslim extremists, also give Murad confidence that the BARMM will have help in combating ISIS influence.

"If we have a good cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia, then we can prevent the ISIS from coming in... It's just a matter of following up because there is already an existing agreement with the government, even with President Duterte," he said.

He was referring to agreements between the Philippine government and Malaysian and Indonesian governments to boost joint counter-terrorism efforts. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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