Ex-guerrillas in southern Philippines begin turning in last batch of firearms

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Sultan Kudarat, Philippines
Ex-guerrillas in southern Philippines begin turning in last batch of firearms Firearms turned over by former separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are tagged during a decommissioning process in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, Philippines, Sept. 27, 2022. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]
[Mark Navales/BenarNews]

Former separatist rebels in the southern Philippines turned in hundreds of weapons on Tuesday, including high-powered assault rifles, as part of the final phase of decommissioning the ex-guerrillas and their firearms as agreed upon in a peace deal with Manila.

But leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former separatist force, said it was likely that some ex-rebels may use the money they receive for handing over their guns to buy newer firearms, a potential scenario authorities are working to stem across the south. The greater Mindanao region is still volatile and armed Muslim militant groups remain active.   

The authorities were taking steps to prevent ex-fighters from purchasing new firearms, said Murad Ebrahim, the grizzled leader of MILF who currently heads a transitional authority in the south, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“We want to assure [the public] … We want the help of the government to control the source of the weapons,” he told reporters during the ceremonial handover of weapons at Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, where 376 weapons were turned in on Tuesday.

Under the decommissioning process, each former combatant who hands over weapons is expected to receive some U.S. $2,400 in cash per weapon, including funds for education. By contrast, a locally made revolver can be bought for less than $100 on the black market in the south.

Additionally, there may be more weapons out there than the numbers that MILF agreed to for decommissioning. A 2016 report by International Alert Philippines, a peace monitoring group, put a conservative estimate of loose firearms in the south at about 50,000.

The Philippine defense department had earlier estimated that there were around 40,000 firearms in the hands of the former guerrillas.

The final phase of decommissioning covers about 18,800 former combatants and some 2,400 weapons. The former separatist force had committed about 7,000 firearms to be decommissioned, of which 4,600 have already been turned over. This was in addition to 5,000 firearms turned over by the group earlier and decommissioned.

The process, which begun in 2019, was supposed to have already been completed by now, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the program.

‘Chance to live normally’

Murad (also known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim) said the decommissioning would bring a brighter future for those who join mainstream society.

“Many of them have never enjoyed their life. They have been living in the jungles. But now they have the chance to live normally as citizens in the country,” he said.

The former rebel leader said the transitional government authorities had already succeeded in persuading their former comrades in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to join them in the autonomous region.

The MNLF was the forerunner of MILF, which broke away from the group in 1978 to pursue the fight for independence. MNLF leader, Nur Misuari, signed a peace pact with Manila ahead of MILF, but he failed to deliver on the promise to uplift the lives of his constituents.

Murad said he was also working to bring in to the fold members of another faction, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which has allied itself with the Islamic State. BIFF has so far resisted his peace overtures, and has been carrying out hit-and-run attacks against government positions in the south.

Analysts have warned that leaving MILF without weapons guns could make them vulnerable to other armed groups, including BIFF. But Murad, on Tuesday, said: “We are not stopping in reaching out [to] our brothers in the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.”

Meanwhile, the law and order situation in the south dramatically improved with fewer cases of kidnappings and killings in the past two years, said Carlito Galvez, chief of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

The Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” a militant group based in Sulu and linked to the Islamic State extremist group, has been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including bombings of military camps and civilian targets. Founded by an Afghan-trained militant in the 1990s, the group later began raising funds through kidnappings-for-ransom.

“In the island provinces like Sulu, they now have night life,” Galvez said.

“There have been zero abduction incidents since 2020.”


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