Philippines: Rebel Leader Warns of Potential Siege ‘Bigger than Marawi’

Mark Navales
Maguindanao, Philippines
171121-MILFE-620.jpg Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al-Hajj Murad (left), and other rebel leaders flash victory signs during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila, July 17, 2017.

An Islamic rebel leader in the southern Philippines warned Tuesday that insurgents could launch a siege larger than the one that precipitated a five-month battle in Marawi city, if Congress failed to pass a law to give Muslims in the south autonomy.

An eruption of violence was a real possibility, Ustadz Wahid Tundok, ground commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) 118th Base Command, told BenarNews, emphasizing that he was expressing his personal view.

“We are only humans and we have feelings. We will be hurt if the passage of the law will not happen,” said Tundok, 50, who fought for the MILF for three decades until 2014, when the group gave up its separatist fight and signed a peace deal with the government.

“We have a lot of forces all over Mindanao’s key cities and if something will happen it’s bigger than Marawi,” Tundok said. “We want the government to fast-track the passage of the law for us to have peace in the region.”

The MILF, which has about 11,000 members, fought government forces of the predominantly Catholic country for decades, first for independence and then for autonomy. About 120,000 were killed in the rebellion that began in the late 1970s.

The MILF recently helped the government crush pro-Islamic State (IS) factions, which were threatening to spread in the central Mindanao region after government forces declared last month that they had defeated extremists in Marawi.

More than 1,100 people were killed, including 930 militants, 165 soldiers and policemen, in the battle that destroyed the city. The fighting there began on May 23, when soldiers and policemen moved to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the region’s acknowledged IS leader.

Security forces were met by a huge force of gunmen composed of Abu Sayyaf militants who were backed by former MILF guerrillas and an undetermined number of fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Defense officials declared the battle over after soldiers killed Hapilon and another Filipino militant leader. A Malaysian doctor who allegedly financed the rebellion was also killed.

Lt. Gen. Car­l­ito Galvez Jr., commander of the military’s Western Min­danao Com­mand, said Islamic militants were using the delay in the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to exploit the “feel­ings of hope­less­ness and frus­tra­tion of Muslims in Mindanao.”

BBL de­fines the ba­sic struc­ture of the pro­posed au­ton­o­mous state in Muslim-populated Min­danao. It has been submitted for approval by the Philippine Congress.

“The pas­sage of the pro­posed BBL will negate the frus­tra­tions of the IS mem­bers,” Galvez told reporters.

“If the pro­posed BBL and the gov­ern­ment were able to de­liver and ad­dress the Bangsamoro (Muslim) ques­tion squarely, I be­lieve there is a chance that we can ac­cel­er­ate our fight against the IS,” Galvez said.

But should the proposed law is bypassed “it will create a lot of emotions,” he said.

Failure could spell ‘trouble’

In October, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Congress to expedite the BBL’s passage, warning that failure to do so could spell trouble.

Tens of thousands fighters and supporters of the MILF will convene in southern Maguindanao province later this week, in what is expected to be a general assembly to push for the law’s passage in Congress.

Last month, the MILF lost about 30 fighters when they launched an assault against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a pro-Islamic militant group in Maguindanao allied with IS factions.

BIFF has carried out many deadly attacks in a bid to disrupt the peace negotiations between the MILF and the government.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato city contributed to this report.

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