Decommissioning of rebel firearms begins June 16

Angela Casauay

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Decommissioning of rebel firearms begins June 16
President Benigno Aquino III will witness the turnover of the first batch of Moro Islamic Liberation Front firearms in Maguindanao

MANILA, Philippines – After months of delay, the turnover of the first batch of rebel firearms – to mark the beginning of the return of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to the mainstream – is set for Tuesday, June 16.

A total of 55 high-powered and 20 crew-served weapons from the MILF will be turned over in an event to be held in Sultan Kudarat town, Maguindanao. A total of 145 members of the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, will also be decommissioned.  

President Benigno Aquino III will be the guest of honor at the event. 

This phase in the peace process comes in the midst of the delay in the passage of the law implementing the peace deal between the government and the MILF in Congress. 

Congress was expected to pass the proposed Bangsamoro basic law in June but the Mamapasano clash, which killed 67 Filipinos in January, pushed back the timeline and raised doubts about the sincerity of the rebel group in the peace process. 

For MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, the turnover of firearms reaffirms the commitment of the rebel group to the peace process. 

“It’s an obligation on our part that we have to undertake the symbolic decommissioning whether or not the BBL is moving in Congress or not,” Iqbal said in a press conference in Ortigas Thursday.  

The schedule of the ceremonial turnover of firearms was set ahead of the beginning of the Ramadan.

Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the event is a way for the peace process to move forward. 

“For most combatants, this is still a risk they are taking. The question is whether the peace process will continue or not. You have to start somewhere,” she said. (READ: 4 scenarios if Bangsamoro bill is not passed)

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 depends on political commitments towards the creation of the Bangsamoro government. 

Iqbal refused to disclose the total number of firearms that the MILF owns but  said they have submitted their inventory to the Independent Decommissioning Body for verification.  

Thirty percent of MILF firearms will be decommissioned once the Bangsamoro Basic Law is ratified.

Another 35% will be turned over when the Bangsamoro government and its police force have been established, while the remaining 35% will be decommissioned once the exit agreement signifying that all commitments have been fulfilled, is signed. (READ: Gov’t, MILF sign protocol for arms decommissioning)

No element of surrender 

The decommissioning process is one of the “most difficult decisions made by the MILF,” Iqbal said.  

He stressed, however, that MILF troops would not be “surrendering” their firearms.  

Under the normalization deal, the firearms would be turned over not to the government but to an independent third-party body, which will also be in charge of overseeing the security of the firearms. 

The weapons will be stored in a secured site in Barira, Maguindanao, Ferrer said. 

Ferrer said the first batch of 145 MILF members to be decommissioned underwent profiling. They are veterans of the 2000 all-out war under the Estrada administration who are mostly based in Maguindanao. 

“They will be the pioneers. They will be the people who will represent the possibilities on where we can go, if we continue this,” she said. 

In exchange for agreeing to return to mainstream life, the combatants will receive a socio-economic package from the government. The details of the program will be revealed during the turnover.

The road ahead

The passage of the controversial Bangsamoro bill is facing a strict timeline and threats of possible dilution in Congress. 

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr is set to file an alternative bill after rejecting the original version of the BBL for allegedly being unconstitutional and not inclusive. 

In the House of Representatives, the ad hoc committee on the Bangsamoro introduced individual amendments but retained the proposed parliamentary form and the funding scheme for the government.

Iqbal said the MILF remains firm in its position that the Bangsamoro bill must remain true to the agreements signed with the government, and must not result in a weaker autonomous government. 

Asked if the MILF will continue to be committed to the decommissioning process if the bill is diluted, Iqbal did not provide a categorical response. 

“The MILF as an organization has never made an official stand as of this moment. Only leaders of the MILF are giving some comments on what has transpired in Congress,” he said. 

“As the chair of MILF peace panel and the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, we’re looking at it as a process….That process entails a lot of levels of engagement. There is stil the plenary and the bicam,” he added.  

Iqbal said the decommissioning process is “designed to succeed” because there will be no turnover of firearms if political commitments, such as the passage of the BBL, are not achieved.

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