Ex-rebels in Muslim Mindanao stake future on recruitment to national police force

Jeoffrey Maitem
2022.06.01
Cotabato, Philippines
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Ex-rebels in Muslim Mindanao stake future on recruitment to national police force Former guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front take an entrance test for the Philippine National Police in Cotabato city, southern Philippines, May 29, 2022.
[Handout Moro Islamic Liberation Front]

Updated at 9:23 p.m. ET on 2022-06-01

As the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed at dawn in a remote village in this southern Philippine city, former separatist rebel Rashid Kanton was preparing recently for an examination that could change his life.  

The 35-year-old ex-member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front hoped to pass the exam to be considered eligible and among the first batch of former MILF insurgents recruited into the ranks of their former enemy, the Philippine National Police. 

“I want to become a policeman to protect the people and catch the bad guys,” he told BenarNews.

“And now we have the peace agreement, we want what was promised to us. We can be part of the police if we pass the examination.”

But the odds are against Kanton, who has only finished high school. He has spent nearly all of his life as a member of the front, which was the country’s largest rebel force until it signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014 to end its decades-long separatist insurgency in the south.

Now, the former guerrilla force controls an expanded autonomous region in the southern Philippines, officially known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Kanton said he had joined the rebel force because he believed in the cause it was fighting for and because he was born into conflict. All his male relatives, at one point or another, were MILF fighters or civilians who helped in the rebellion, he said.

One of the conditions of the peace deal was the integration of select fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front into the country’s police and military forces, subject to a rigid selection process.

Like Kanton, Sahid Lumabao, a 23-year-old high school graduate from Datu Odin Sinsuat, said he was thankful for the opportunity to take the police exam.

“Every night before our examination, I was reading materials related to police duties and functions,” Sahid told BenarNews.

“That’s my focus. I am doing this for my future family.”

PH_pic1.jpg

A member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s elite Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces is seen inside the group’s Camp Darapanan on the outskirts of Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, June 22, 2019. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Not entirely welcome

Murad Ebrahim, the chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and head of the transitional government in the autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, said that when they received the go-ahead from the government on the examination for the police force, many ex-rebels wanted to serve, although some were automatically eliminated because they lacked basic qualifications.

“After three years of the transition period, we are happy that we are finally taking the first step into making this provision a reality,” Ebrahim, also known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim, told BenarNews.

Still, passing the examination is only one of the qualifications required for joining the police force, said Ricardo Bernabe III, who heads the National Police Commission.

“Once they have the eligibility, they can apply now to the Philippine National Police,” he told reporters, adding that candidates would not be appointed for merely passing the examination.

“They have their recruitment process” after the exam, he added.

However, not all members of the national police force have openly embraced the prospect of rebels being integrated into their ranks, especially officers from special units who saw action in the volatile south, sources said.

Seven years ago, 44 police commandos were killed in a fierce gunbattle with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in January 2015, following a clandestine operation to kill Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan), who was one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted militants at the time.

In the botched operation at Mamasapano, Marwan was slain but dozens of the commandos were trapped and died after engaging the guerrillas, who said they thought they were under attack by enemy forces. It was described as the biggest single-day combat loss for the government in recent memory.

The rebel group justified its action, saying government forces had entered its area in the south unannounced in violation of a ceasefire.

The fighting set back the peace process, and it was only after President Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Benigno Aquino III that Congress passed a law giving autonomy to the areas in the south controlled by MILF.

Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version, a quote about plans by an aspiring police recruit for a future family was wrongly attributed to Rashid Kanton.

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