Former Muslim rebels who signed a peace pact with Manila four years ago said Tuesday they would not disarm up to 9,000 of their fighters, as scheduled for next month, if the Philippine congress failed to pass an autonomy law.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front said the guerrillas would not give up their weapons unless the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) makes it through the legislature, MILF secretariat chairman Mohammad Ameen told BenarNews.
“How could you decommission the guns if there is no BBL?” Ameen said. “That will only happen if there will be a passage of the BBL. If none, no decommissioning.”
MILF had committed to lay down its weapons in phases under the “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” component of the peace pact aimed at limiting violence in the strife-torn southern region of Mindanao.
“We are expecting 5,000 to 9,000 men of the MILF to be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated if the BBL is passed by Congress in May,” said Nabil Tan, deputy presidential peace process undersecretary.
The 12,000-strong MILF dropped its bid for self-rule to settle for an expanded autonomy when it signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
BBL: A potential buffer against other Marawis
The BBL outlines the basic structure of the proposed autonomy in Mindanao, the country’s mineral-rich southern third where many areas remain mired in poverty because of the insurgency.
The Senate and the House of Representatives have previously failed to pass the BBL, largely out of fear that giving the minority Muslims greater power could lead to trouble.
A January 2015 clash between MILF guerrillas and members of a police commando unit left 44 officers dead as they were hunting down a wanted Malaysian terrorist did not help ease lawmakers’ apprehensions.
But MILF has gained some measure of trust after it helped the military go after Islamic State-linked militants who laid siege last year to the southern city of Marawi.
Legislators who toured Marawi in January said they were shocked by the extent of the damage in the area, and vowed to pass the bill immediately.
Passing the BBL, they said, would help prevent another Marawi from happening because it would finally give Muslims in the south their chance at self-determination that they have long sought.
Duterte, who met with MILF leaders in March to mark the fourth anniversary of the peace deal, assured them of the BBL’s passage in Congress that his allies in the majority control.
But in case Congress does not pass the bill, Duterte said he would go to the extent of “exercising his residual powers through administrative directives to fulfil this commitment.”
“If this does not get done during the presidency of President Duterte, we seriously doubt if we can do it at all, in the future,” MILF chief Murad Ebrahim had said.
MILF panel member Abhoud Syed Lingga said Congress should realize the urgency and pass the BBL amid concerns about a growing Islamic State (IS) presence in Mindanao.
Should the bill not pass, it would add to the frustrations of the Muslims in the south, a potential breeding ground for IS, he said.
“A breakthrough in the peace process is direly needed to address these frustrations,” Lingga said.
Congress has been on a break since late March, and will resume its sessions on May 14. It is set to adjourn on June 1, and officials said Duterte wanted the law to be enacted by then.
Congress failed to pass the BBL in 2015 after a public uproar following the deadly misencounter between the police commandoes and MILF rebels that January.
In 2008, the Supreme Court also rejected the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) signed by the government and MILF – a precursor to the BBL that was signed between President Gloria Arroyo’s government and the rebels.
Following the rejection, armed members of MILF staged attacks in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and in central Mindanao, causing massive evacuations of residents.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.