After decades of armed conflict, Muslims of the southern Philippines -- the Bangsamoro -- now have the right to self-governance. The new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao encompasses five provinces and more than four million people. But it faces many challenges -- brutal splinter groups, Islamic State sympathizers, and lingering differences between the region's two main separatist groups. Can the Bangsamoro end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts?
Philippines: MILF Leader Tells IS-linked Militants to Give up the Fight
Jason Gutierrez, Jeoffrey Maitem, Jojo Rinoza and Mark Navales
Camp Darapanan, Philippines
The leader of what was once the Philippines’ largest Muslim insurgent force downplayed threats posed by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) and urged them instead to drop their guns and help develop an Islamic homeland he now leads.
Murad Ebrahim, who led the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during decades of separatist rebellion, told BenarNews in an interview that there remained only “a small group” of foreign jihadist scattered across the main southern island of Mindanao.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters bow in prayer at a mosque inside Camp Darapanan, Philippines, June 22, 2019. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)
They number between 20 and 30, and are embedded with fringe militant groups, said Murad, the interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“The reported foreign fighters of the ISIS here is very small. They are tied up with local groups and are not actually ideological,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
Such groups are on the run after a massive campaign to crush them, two years after they stormed the southern city of Marawi and mounted a five-month battle that left more than a thousand people dead, most of them militants.
Murad heads an 80-member team that leads the BARMM, a zone made up of at least five southern provinces where MILF will oversee self-rule until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022. Marawi, now mostly in ruins, is one of its main cities.
The new Muslim homeland was ratified by voters in plebiscites earlier this year, as the final step in a peace pact signed with Manila in 2014, and brokered by Malaysia.
However, small factions such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Abu Sayyaf have splintered from the MILF, and allied with the so-called Islamic State as it tried to establish a home base in Southeast Asia after losing territory in the Middle East.
Two years ago, militants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East joined in the Marawi attack, and a handful are known to have escaped and sought refuge in jungle camps.
“They are distributed among different groups. Both the BIFF and the ASG also splintered into many groups. The ASG is not led by one leader – they are splintered into several groups. Same with the BIFF, into three groups,” Murad told BenarNews.
And while the peace agreement requires his forces to eventually turn in their weapons, those assigned to join the military in combating these remnants would be the last to do so, Murad said.
“When the security structure is already in place, then we can decommission them,” he said.
‘Open for dialogue’
Murad acknowledged that there had been some residual violence in the south since he assumed the leadership of the BARMM early this year, but said he was confident that with the MILF joining the military in its fight, the threat would soon be eradicated.
Moreover, militants still fighting “are open for negotiations,” according to the 70-year-old veteran fighter.
“We are open for dialogue with them because we feel and believe that most of these splinter groups were frustrated by the government,” Murad told BenarNews during the interview on Friday at his office in Cotabato City, where he has traded his field clothes for a suit.
“We are also offering them, if they want to join (the government), we are open to accommodate them. We are willing to because our agreement with the government is that there will be a declaration of a general amnesty. This will cover all political crimes. So we will include them – all those who are qualified.”
Murad said those who joined the Marawi siege and those wanted by the government would not be covered by the amnesty.
‘Ready to transform’
In the years since the peace pact was signed, much has changed in the MILF’s main Camp Darapanan, just outside Cotabato City. A cement road leads to the heart of the area, replacing a dirt path that once connected the gunmen to the outside world.
An archway welcomes tricycles, trucks and other civilian traffic into the MILF administrative camp, while vendors selling freshly picked squash and other farm produce line the street as the harsh tropical sun beats down.
Yet the setting still bears reminders of the MILF’s decades-old rebellion for an independent Muslim state in the southern third of the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest predominantly Catholic nation.
A security patrol guards the camp’s perimeter and grizzled veterans tell stories of gun battles over piping hot coffee to anyone willing to listen. A sentry armed with a .50-caliber machine gun is perched on a post, scanning the horizon for potential enemies.
“Before we entered into this interim period of governance, we already expected that there will be great challenges because first of all, we are a revolutionary organization and we have no experience in governance. We had to transform from revolutionary to governance,” Murad said.
Murad and the MILF are trying to establish an autonomous Muslim region about two decades after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) failed to do so. The MILF split with the MNLF in the 1970s.
After the MNLF signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, its leader, Nur Misuari, became governor of a Muslim region known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
But, according to analysts, Misuari failed to uplift the lives of the poor and allegations of corruption plagued his administration. In 2013, followers of Misuari led a two-month siege in southern Zamboanga city that left more than 200 dead, most of them MNLF fighters.
Murad said his administration aimed to prevent a similar failure by focusing on “moral governance.”
He noted that militants, particularly the Abu Sayyaf which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, were motivated mainly by a desire to escape harsh poverty in their areas.
But as peace takes hold and economic development begins to trickle down, Murad said he expected many to give up their arms.
“Now, we see our people are ready to transform from the usual revolutionary force. We feel everybody accepts now the situation is different from what we were facing before when we started the struggle,” Murad said.
He credited President Rodrigo Duterte for the general change in the public’s perception of the Muslim cause.
“He himself acknowledged the injustices against the Bangsamoro. So this acknowledgement of injustices makes people like us feel this time around that it’s different from the past, when we were seen as their enemy,” Murad said.
About 120,000 died in fighting in the Philippines since the 1970s, according to Mohagher Iqbal, the former MILF chief negotiator who is now the BARMM’s minister for education.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters walk past a sign declaring the region Bangsamoro, June 22, 2019. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)
Murad Ebrahim: From Insurgent Leader to Peacemaker
Jason Gutierrez, Jeoffrey Maitem, Jojo Rinoza and Mark Navales
Veteran insurgent leader Murad Ebrahim has traded in the fatigues he once wore for a business suit to lead the Muslim autonomous region his Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) won after decades of armed struggle in the southern Philippines and a peace pact years in the making.
Murad took over leadership of a transitional local government earlier this year after people in five provinces and a handful of neighboring districts agreed to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Murad Ebrahim, interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), speaks with BenarNews in his office in Cotabato City, Philippines, June 21, 2019. (Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews)
The 70-year-old claims he may see peace in his lifetime in a region where 120,000 have died in insurgency-related violence since the 1970s – and despite the failure of an earlier autonomous region, the ARMM, governed by MILF’s predecessor, the MNLF.
In an hour-long, no-holds-barred interview at his office in southern Cotabato City, Murad discussed his dreams, expectations and challenges as he navigates his new position while militants, both foreign and local, are nipping at his leadership.
BenarNews: What challenges lie ahead for you? Did you think it would be easy or difficult?
Murad: Before we entered into this interim period of governance, we already expected that there will be great challenges because first of all, we are a revolutionary organization and we have no experience in governance. We had to transform from revolutionary to governance.
Second, the expectation of our people is very high. So we need to respond to that expectation.
The first challenge we faced in the first year of the transition period is that our block grant was not appropriated in the 2019 budget. So we only have the remaining budget of the ARMM for 2019.
This remaining budget is already pre-planned, so we cannot re-align. We cannot introduce new programs for 2019.
BN:In short, it is a question of money?
Murad: One of the challenges is the question of money. The funding.
BN:How do you see your group evolving in the face of these challenges?
Murad: We see that we are progressing. We can manage the challenges. And we are hoping that, because by 2022, there will be an election for a regular government. So we need to strengthen our political party because the ministerial form of governance is more dependent on the strength of the political party.
BN: Many of your men have known nothing except fighting. How difficult is that?
Murad: Starting a few years ago we already tried to capacitate our people, because we are expecting that when we enter the government we need to capacitate them. And on our side we see that our success depends on how we can mobilize the capability and the talent of our people.
So even though we employ our own people in the organization, we also maintained those ARMM employees who are … especially part of the bureaucracy, we maintained them. We did not totally change the bureaucracy.
BN: So the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is still there?
Murad: It’s still there. And the bureaucracy is still intact. Actually, as of now, we just changed all those personnel who were linked with the political authority.
BN: How is the civilian government taking the changes?
Murad: Well, we see that so far, it is acceptable to them.
BN: And what makes the MILF leadership this time around different from the MNLF?
Murad: Well, now we focus on what we term as moral governance. We see that our success lies in how we can correct the evils of the system … evils of society. So we need to focus more on the advocacy for moral governance.
And the very time during the inauguration of the ARMM, we asked all our BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) members to pledge to Allah to abide by the moral governance. That is our main advocacy for now.
BN: Where are you on the decommissioning process? How many firearms does the MILF have?
Murad: There are two tracts in the peace process. One is normalization and the other is the political tract. The normalization and political tract are side by side.
Now, under the normalization tract, this includes the decommissioning of our troops. And the decommissioning is divided into three phases. The first phase falls after the BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) is in place, the second phase is when the security structure will be in place. Third is when all the provisions of the agreement is implemented.
So now we are looking into decommissioning about 12,000 of our combatants. Maybe in the coming two or three months.
BN: So these 12,000 fighters will turn over their firearms?
Murad: Yes. Because we have also divided the firearms into three categories – the firearms owned by the organization, the firearms owned individually by the fighters, and those that are owned by civilians but which were used during war.
So we have different arrangements with the government with this. So the first thing we will turn over are the weapons owned by the organization. Then maybe we will have some arrangement on those guns individually owned by the fighters and civilians.
BN: How many are you willing to give up to avoid being vulnerable to attacks by other groups opposed to the MILF?
Murad: We have officially declared the number of weapons owned by the organization to around 6,000 to 7,000. We are still trying to account for those owned by the combatants themselves. And then there is also those that are owned by civilians.
BN: 6,000 is a bit low, don’t you think?
Murad: As I have said, the firearms owned by individual combatants is much higher.
BN: How many are we talking about?
Murad: Our regular combatants alone, is about 30,000 to 40,000. … Some are owned by the combatants and civilians.
BN: Will the decommissioned weapons be destroyed?
Murad: Under the agreement, it will be put beyond use. It will be kept in a certain place agreed upon and it will not be used by both parties. It will not be destroyed. This is similar to the agreement of Northern Ireland. The weapons of the Irish rebels are intact.
BN: When the MILF joined the government, there were several groups that splintered from the MILF, including the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters). How do you plan to deal with them if your firearms have already been surrendered?
Murad: Well, initially we are forming an interim security arrangement. It is forming a joint peace and security teams composed of the MILF-BIAF and government forces. Half of it from the police and the AFP (military).
So this will be the interim security. The MILF forces in this interim security will be the last to be decommissioned. When the security structure is already in place, then we can already decommission them.
BN: Will the MILF will be part of the anti-Islamic State drive?
Murad: Yes, we will be. But our strategy is two parts – we are open for dialogue with them, because we feel and believe that most of these splinter groups, or all of them, are (fighting) out of frustration from the peace process. You will see that the ASG (Abu Sayyaf) emerged after the failure of the implementation of the 1996 peace process with the MNLF. The BIFF splintered from the MILF after the failure of the MOA-AD. The latest group, the Maute Group, splintered also from the MILF. They bolted out after the non-passage of the BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) during the Aquino time.
[The MOA-AD or Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was signed between the MILF and the government of ex-president Gloria Arroyo. It was later rejected by the Supreme Court. The MILF then declared all-out war with the government, leading to large-scale clashes and the displacement of entire communities.]
BN: How are you going to prevent the entry of foreign fighters, as happened in Marawi?
Murad: First of all, the reported foreign fighters for IS here is very small. They are tied up with the local groups and are not actually ideological. It is more of a financial necessity. Now actually, our intelligence confirms there are very few foreign nationals who are with these small groups.
BN: How many were you able to monitor based on intel in Mindanao?
Murad: They are from 20 to 30 maximum. Scattered … not in one location.
BN: When you say scattered, they are in heavily populated areas?
Murad: They are distributed among different groups. Both the BIFF and the ASG also splintered into many groups. The ASG has no one leader – they are splintered into several groups. Same with the BIFF, into three groups.
Even the latest one, the Maute Group, was also splintered (in) at least two groups. So now, even these foreign elements, they are also scattered among these splintered groups.
BN: But they can take advantage of that?
Murad: Yes. They can take advantage. [But] minus the support of the people in the area and then with the strong security structure in place, we are confident that we can finally get rid of them. We are also offering them, if they want to join [the government], we are open to accommodate them. We are willing to, because our agreement with the government is that there will be a declaration of a general amnesty. This will cover all political crimes. So we will include them – all those who are qualified.
BN: Even those who took part in Marawi?
Murad: Well, that would be different because many of them are considered as criminals and not tied to political crime.
BN: Has the MILF heard about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan? Police and military said he worked with Indonesian militants in carrying out the Jolo bombings. Do you believe that?
Murad: Well, we see that most of the ASG are mainly motivated by money. Because we see that’s why they are more engaged in kidnapping. Recently, they have been involved in these bombings. These foreign fighters are trying to entice them with money. And that is why they also joined this group.
BN: If you compare the MILF now to how it was several years ago, what’s the difference?
Murad: Well, now, we see our people are ready to transform from the usual revolutionary force. We feel everybody accepts now the situation is different from what we were facing before when we started the struggle.
[W]e believed at that time that it was a fight for survival. If you go back to how this conflict started, it started in the late 1960s when there was this so called genocide campaign versus the Bangsamoro.
Now it is different, especially after the new president, [Rodrigo] Duterte, came into power. He himself acknowledged the injustices against the Bangsamoro. So this acknowledgement of injustice makes people like us feel this time around that it’s different from the past when we were seen as their enemy.
BN: How has your life changed?
Murad: … Your lifestyle always depends on your surroundings. When you are in the jungle, you have a different lifestyle. In urban areas, you have another lifestyle.
BN: You are in comfortable suits now?
Murad: We have to be. Although, you know, I only wear like this (on) official business. But on ordinary days, I wear normal clothes.
BN: Describe your day.
Murad: … In my schedule for weekdays I am in the office. But on weekends, I stay in [MILF camp] Darapanan because now our plan is that we will maintain the MILF as a social movement. We will not disband.
We will officially register it as a social movement, not necessarily a political party but more like an NGO or like a CSO (Civil Service Organization). It could be a partner of the government in implementing social services to the people.