A peace monitoring organization on Tuesday welcomed Manila’s plan to decommission thousands of firearms controlled by an ex-Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but expressed doubt that the move would sharply reduce violence in the strife-torn south.
A batch of MILF combatants, numbering an estimated 12,000, is expected to turn over firearms to the government in the first phase of decommissioning scheduled for Sept. 7.
“We applaud the plan to retire weapons that are supposedly in the hands of MILF combatants. What we are saying is that it is not enough, and it should not lead to expectations that it is going to resolve in a major deceleration in attacks that are related to firearms. It won’t,” said Francisco Lara, a senior adviser of International Alert Philippines, the local office of the London-based NGO that focuses on peace-building and conflict resolution efforts in hotspots worldwide.
“There is not going to be any impact at all,” he told Philippine media while releasing a new report by International Alert about prospects for peace in the southern Mindanao region.
The phased handover of weapons by the former rebel force, which counts up to 40,000 fighters by its own estimates, is part of a peace deal between the rebel group and Manila that led to the establishment in February 2019 of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which is governed by MILF.
The former guerrillas, meanwhile, have been helping the Philippine military go after Islamic State-linked militants, including many who belonged to groups that took part in a five-month IS siege of southern Marawi city in 2017.
In an interview with BenarNews in June, MILF leader Murad Ebrahim said his group was working to validate how many weapons were to be handed over to Manila, but that many of the firearms were owned by MILF members themselves and not the organization.
“We all know that right now the declaration has been there are two types of weapons – those that are owned by the members and those owned by the organization. The agreement is to decommission those weapons that are owned by the organization and not the members,” Lara told reporters.
Lara said he believed that a substantial number of firearms could be left in the hands of former MILF fighters but, in his view, the government and military must account for all of them.
The firearms to be decommissioned Saturday are to be kept by a group made up of government officials, MILF officials and foreign experts, and each combatant who hands over his weapons is expected to receive a cash payment, including money for education.
“Effectively, it’s martial law that has been able to curb the proliferation of illicit weapons, at least in terms of the evidence that we saw in our database,” International Alert country manager Nikki Dela Rosa said.
In particular, Dela Rosa said, the government needed to review its gun control regulations that allow a person to own 15 semi-automatic weapons.
While violence has continued in the south on a near daily basis, deaths attributed to conflicts have decreased year on year, by about 60 percent to just 900 in 2018. This was partially due to coordinated attacks and the drop in the use of explosives by various armed groups, International Alert reported.
“The state was also able to maintain a fragile peace in the Bangsamoro [region] by imposing martial law, which in turn deterred the carrying use of firearms,” Dela Rosa said.