The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has begun decommissioning firearms following the historic passage of a law giving the former separatist group autonomy in the south, its chief peace negotiator told BenarNews on Friday.
But the 12,000-member MILF is prepared to help the government against a breakaway unit that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), said Mohagher Iqbal, the group’s chief peace negotiator.
Under the Bangsamoro Organic Law, four million Muslim Filipinos will be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas of southern Mindanao and nearby islands, where five decades of insurgency have left more than 100,000 people dead.
The law will give them control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and it will allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system. The MILF will retain control of the autonomous region until elections are held later this year.
“The first pace of the decommissioning, about 30 percent, started after the law was ratified,” Iqbal said, but declined to give a specific figure.
“The second phase will start after the plebiscite and the last batch will happen after the plebiscite and appointment of the leaders that will form the Bangsamoro Transition Authority,” Iqbal said referring to the upcoming elections.
The Bangsamoro Transition Authority will take over from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was a product of a peace agreement between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The MILF split from the MNLF in 1978, after the latter dropped the fight for independence. The MILF pressed on with the guerrilla warfare that had left many areas in the mineral-rich south underdeveloped, where large clans controlled local economy and politics.
But past governments have said that despite the millions in dollars poured into the ARMM, the area remains impoverished.
In Manila, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said officials are working with the MILF leadership to disarm their forces and the possible integration of qualified fighters into the military and police force.
“Together with our brothers and sisters in the Bangsamoro, we will show the world that violence and terror do not have a place in our communities, and as Filipinos, we can work together to achieve just and lasting peace,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Other forces in Mindanao
Wahid Tundok, an MILF field commander based in Maguindanao, told BenarNews he could not say when he would surrender his weapons, noting other groups still pose threats.
“We are waiting for orders from our leaders. But I am happy the law was already signed by the president,” said Tundok.
Tundok’s forces was implicated in the deaths of 44 police commandos in a 2015 operation against a Malaysian terrorist. Iqbal appeared before a Senate hearing whose members later established that the police chief at that time failed to notify the MILF of the raid, leading to confusion and the gun battle.
Mansoor Limba of the Al Qalam Institute at the Ateneo de Davao University warned that smaller and more vicious armed groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the MILF’s breakaway unit, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters could launch attacks as the MILF forces were surrendering their weapons.
Limba said if the government failed to address the roots of discontent, peace in the south would remain elusive.
“Failure to give due attention and to give due solution to these concerns would only give reason for them to fan out more violence in Mindanao,” he said.
On July 31, 10 people and a militant died when a bomb detonated inside a van in Lamitan, a mixed Muslim-Christian city in Basilan island, also in the south.
The Islamic State claimed that one of its fighters, a Moroccan, staged the attack.
The claim has been discounted by the government, even as Interior Undersecretary Eduardo Año, told the Associated Press on Thursday that a foreign militant was behind the attack.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.