Bangsamoro leader: Militants endanger efforts to disarm ex-MILF guerrillas in southern Philippines

Jeoffrey Maitem
Sultan Kudarat, Philippines
Bangsamoro leader: Militants endanger efforts to disarm ex-MILF guerrillas in southern Philippines Former rebels with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are seen during a mass ceremony to decommission more than 1,000 ex-fighters, in Sultan Kudarat, Philippines, Aug. 3, 2023.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Militant groups are endangering efforts to disarm former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas by trying to recruit them, the head of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines told 1,300 ex-combatants during their official decommissioning ceremony this week.

Some MILF members have reneged on the group’s promise to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to cooperate in the transition to peace in the south, said Murad Ebrahim, the ex-chief of the former separatist group who now heads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

“We are facing a very challenging situation because there are still groups out there that encourage our members to join them,” Murad told reporters Thursday during a ceremony here as he led 1,301 former MILF combatants in the third and final phase of a process to decommission them as fighters and have them turn over their weapons. 

While Murad did not specifically mention any militant groups, the three largest factions are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group.

While the MILF signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014 – under which the rebels agreed to give up their question for a separate state in the south in exchange for autonomy – the three other groups refused to give up and pledged allegiance to the extremist group known as Islamic State.

Former Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels participate at a decommissioning ceremony in Sultan Kudarat, Philippines, Aug. 3, 2023. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

Under the decommissioning process, each former combatant who hands over weapons is expected to receive about U.S. $2,400 per weapon, including funds for education.  

The process, which began in 2019, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The first phase covered 145 combatants and 75 weapons while the second phase included 12,000 guerillas with 2,000 weapons. Thursday’s program involving 1,301 former rebels was part of the third phase that covers 12,699 fighters and 2,450 weapons. 

The Philippine defense department previously estimated that there were about 40,000 firearms in the hands of the former MILF guerrillas. 

It was not immediately clear how many ex-members of the group remain out there who have not surrendered their guns.

The third phase is expected to conclude on Aug. 10, the state-run Philippine News Agency quoted Carlito Galvez Jr., the presidential adviser on peace, as saying on Friday. 

Murad Ebrahim, former chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, speaks during a ceremony marking the final phase of the decommissioning of MILF fighters, in Sultan Kudarat, Philippines, Aug. 3, 2023. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

During the decommissioning, Murad (also known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim) said the former combatants would be eligible for assistance from the central government and jobs in the BARMM if they qualified. 

“The MILF only aspires [for] equal opportunities and access for growth and development for the Bangsamoro people and its homeland,” he said.

“For some, the process of decommissioning might be slow, but may I remind you all that this process takes some time because we are not only transforming the individual lives of the combatants and making them productive members of our society but even so importantly, transforming all communities across the BARMM to become peaceful and progressive.” 

He noted that the former combatants, who have referred to themselves as mujahideen fighters, “can be employed” by the BARMM. 

That is part of the contribution in order to ensure their lives will transform,” he said. 

Deadly encounter

In June, Mohaqher Iqbal, MILF’s former chief negotiator who serves as BARMM’s education minister, said seven former guerrillas were killed in what the government said was a “law enforcement activity” near the town of Datu Paglas.  

The military has insisted that those killed were militants and suggested that they could be former MILF fighters who broke away from the chain of command. 

“They were targeted as members of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters,” Iqbal said on Thursday, insisting that those killed were MILF members.

“The incident made us decide to temporarily put on hold the decommissioning of combatants,” Iqbal said. “It’s much needed to pave the way for the healing process for the entire organization as well the families of slain combatants.” 

President Marcos ordered an investigation into the incident though, weeks later, the government has not released its findings. Iqbal said the delay caused some MILF members to lose their trust in the government. 

Iqbal said an independent third body such as the International Monitoring Team could have helped maintain the confidence of their members in the peace process.  But the Malaysian-led IMT left Mindanao after former President Rodrigo Duterte said it was no longer needed in the south. 

The IMT, which included representatives from Libya and Brunei, monitored the humanitarian, rehabilitation and development aspects of the peace process. The peacekeeping contingent also ensured protection of civilians in areas where rebels operated. 

“No investigation was made by an independent body. It is in this juncture that we reiterate our position that the IMT should return to look into this matter,” Iqbal said. 


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.