Duterte tells disarmed MILF soldiers: Do not be disheartened

MANILA, Philippines – The war is over, and although the thousands of Moro rebels who fought the government for decades have long waited for this day, now that it has arrived, they are somewhat anxious.

When President Rodrigo Duterte arrived at the Old Capitol in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, what welcomed him were rows upon rows of weapons: automatic rifles, grenade launchers, and rocket launchers, all lying cold on silken sheets for display.

Duterte perused the exhibit guided by Al Haj Ahod Ebrahim, Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and now Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Ebrahim has dropped the name he’s been known as – Murad, his nom de guerre.

This is MILF’s biggest part of the “bargain” with the government, as Ebrahim himself put it: the decommissioning, or disarmament, of its 40,000-strong Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

Duterte led the ceremony on Saturday, September 7, to officialize the second phase of the MILF’s decommissioning, which will see 12,000 of its soldiers disarmed by early 2020, or 30% of its troops, the MILF’s answer to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that created the BARMM last January.

“The 1,060 combatants who are to be decommissioned today here in this place are not ordinary individuals. They are 1,060 individuals whose lives were drastically affected. These are 1,060 stories of love, faith, and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and for the sake of the aspirations of every Bangsamoro,” Ebrahim said as he presented the combatants to the President.

“This new chapter can be quite challenging for our comrades. For many years, our training has been grounded on the armed struggle. But now, our brave combatants will face a significantly different form of struggle to transform to civilian lives and embrace a new mindset,” Ebrahim went on.

“That instead of going to the field for conflict, we will now go to the field to harvest our crops; that instead of carrying firearms, we will now carry tools for work and education; that instead of thinking about a possible encounter the next day, we can now think of opportunities that await us, our children, and those who will follow.”

Their guns have been their assurance of survival, more dear to them than their own wives, MILF combatants have told Rappler. It was the only security they have known, and now it will be taken from them.

Duterte picked up on this sentiment among the former rebels arrayed before him in the cavernous hall of the Old Capitol.

“Do not be sad na ang armas ninyo, binigay 'nyo sa gobyerno, kasi kayo, gobyerno na. Eh kung kailangan talaga ninyo ng armas para idepensa ninyo ang gobyerno dito sa BARMM, walang problema. Bigyan ko kayo mas bago,” Duterte told them.

(Do not be sad that you turned over your arms to the government because you are now of the government. If you really need arms to defend your government here in BARMM, no problem. I will give you newer ones.)

“Do not be disheartened na nag-surrender ka ng armas. Inyo na itong gobyerno na ito. Binigay na namin sa inyo,” Duterte added.

(Do not be disheartened that you surrendered arms. This government is yours. We’ve given it to you.)

To be clear, the MILF troops are not surrendering. They did not lose the war. They have agreed with the government to end it. This is the official position of both sides – the Philippine government and the MILF.

The former rebel group is expected to hand over some 7,000 weapons to the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) composed of representatives from Turkey, Norway, Brunei, and two from the Philippines jointly selected by the MILF and the government.

On Saturday, the MILF put forward more than 900 of those weapons for decommissioning. They will be placed in the custody of the IDB.

For letting go of their guns, every MILF combatant is promised P100,000 in cash and livelihood assistance from the government, and P500,000 to P1,000,000 in housing, healthcare and scholarships for their families.

“Then if you want to improve the mechanized farming, may capital naman kayo, huwag kayo magbili ng armas…. Gamitin mo ang pera sa livelihood para mabuhay ang pamilya mo. Kasi wala nang mag-away sa inyo,” Duterte told the disarmed MILF soldiers.

(Then if you want to improve the mechanized farming, you do have capital, do not buy weapons…. Use the money for livelihood so that you and your family can live. Because no one will fight you anymore.)

Ebrahim thanked Duterte profusely, crediting him with the “strong will” to the deliver, at last, their expanded autonomy, although Duterte only prioritized the BOL, on which the BARMM’s creation hinged, after the grisly siege of Marawi City in 2017 by the pro-Islamic State Maute terror group – more than a year into his term.

The initial phase of the disarmament happened in 2015 with the decommissioning of 145 BIAF soldiers and 75 weapons, following the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014 under President Benigno Aquino III.

A third and fourth phase of the decommissioning process will see all 40,000 BIAF soldiers disarmed by 2022, the year Duterte’s term ends. By then, the MILF shall have fully transitioned into a political party, and the BARMM ready to hold its first elections.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Ebrahim addressed his comrades in the Moro struggle who were about to learn what it means to live in peace.

“The cause will live on in each and every single one of you. Our time in the battlefield is over. But to our youth, it is now your time to face the battle of achieving greatness from the things that you are passionate for,” the former rebel leader said.

“And out of the opportunities that the sacrifices of your elders have created for you, these fruits are what our forefathers would have wanted to see: a community flourishing, a ‘bangsa’ that is thriving, and a peaceful region existing.” – Rappler.com