Philippine Muslim Autonomous Region Leader Seeks More Time to Control Militants

J.C. Gotinga
Manila
2021-05-14
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Philippine Muslim Autonomous Region Leader Seeks More Time to Control Militants Troops prepare to secure a roadway near the town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao during an attack by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters members, May 8, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The transitional autonomous government in the southern Philippines needs more time to control militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) but has begun talks with them, its leader told lawmakers on Friday. 

Ahod Balawag Ebrahim, chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), told senators during a legislative inquiry that he had asked for a three-year extension for his government because normalization in the restive south would take longer than the three years granted to the interim administration.

“The normalization is not a failure. The problem is really that it is not completed. That is why we are asking for an extension, in order to complete the transition and the normalization," said the leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which used to be a separatist group before it signed a peace deal with the government in 2014. 

Ebrahim is popularly known as Murad Ebrahim, the name he used as the leader of MILF.

“Our strategy [to deal with militants] is, we opened [a] dialogue with them and we tried to convince them” to end the violence, Murad told the senators during online deliberations. 

Murad said in January that he had made preliminary contact with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as well as the Abu Sayyaf Group in efforts to persuade them to come into the fold of the law.

BIFF is a faction that broke away from the MILF and refused to sign the peace agreement.

One BIFF faction has continued to fight for an independent Muslim state in the southern island of Mindanao.

Another faction of BIFF and Abu Sayyaf, which also operates in the southern region of Mindanao, have both pledged their allegiance to IS.

“We have influenced a bit the faction of Ismael Bongos, then some [in] the group of Karialan,” Murad said. 

He was referring to BIFF commanders Ismail Abubakar, or Bongos, and Ustadz Karialan, whose forces faced off with military troops last weekend after they briefly took over the small southern town Datu Paglas. Karialan has not come out openly to pledge support to IS, but as a group, BIFF has not censured IS attacks that advance their own goals.

A third, more radical faction, led by Abu Turaife, has openly pledged support to IS.

Murad said hundreds of militants have already turned their backs on BIFF. 

“In fact, 900-plus from these groups have registered with us. They joined back with MILF,” he said. 

Murad has been under pressure to rein in BIFF. President Rodrigo Duterte flew to the south earlier this week to meet with BARMM and military officials. 

Duterte warned BARMM leaders that if they did not convince BIFF forces to stand down, he would order the military to launch an all-out offensive.

“The monkey wrench in the whole situation now is the BIFF and they continue to inflict not just small violence,” Duterte said on Tuesday.

“They continue to burn, ambush and detonate bombs, really full-blown terrorism.”

Transitional government extension

On Friday, Murad asked the senators to pass a law that would postpone regional elections set for May 2022 and allow BARMM leaders to retain power until 2025. Under the current law on the BARMM, the transitional government is supposed to step down in May 2022.

This is to give the regional government more time to establish reforms and stamp out remaining militant groups, BARMM officials have said. The officials were appointed in 2019 by the central government in Manila rather than by a vote.

A panel of senators questioned the BARMM regional government’s performance, noting that many of the reforms outlined in the peace deal with the central government have yet to be delivered, including the elimination of militants and armed groups in the perennially strife-torn Mindanao region. 

The senators asked officials from BARMM and Manila’s peace process office whether incidents like last weekend’s attack in Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao province, and another fight on Wednesday when five suspected BIFF members were killed, indicated a failure in the normalization or process.

The “normalization process is not a magic formula,” said Mohagher Iqbal, BARMM’s education minister and one of the MILF’s top leaders,

MILF leaders have said three years was too short a time to establish a strong regional government, noting the COVID-19 pandemic severely hampered their efforts. 

“We are still pushing for extension because we believe it is the only way to complete the normalization process,” Murad said. 

Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. backed the BARMM governors. “Limiting factors,” including the pandemic, and the consequent reallocation of funds meant for the normalization effort, were reasons for the regional government appearing to have underperformed. 

“While the BARMM interim government has done a remarkable job with such a short period of time, we believe that the three-year transition period is still not enough to accomplish what it had set [out] to do,” Galvez said. 

Besides, elections tend to be divisive and what the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao needs most is unity, he said. 

Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.

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