Updated at 1:42 a.m. ET on 2019-02-23
President Rodrigo Duterte swore in 80 ex-Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas Friday as interim leaders of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines, whose creation was ratified through a local referendum despite the lurking presence of Islamic State militants.
MILF leader Murad Ebrahim became interim chief minister of the newly-created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a zone made up of at least five southern provinces where MILF will oversee self-rule until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022. He was sworn into office at the Presidential Palace in Manila, along with other former leaders of the rebel group.
Murad’s team will work towards a change of leadership in the region, which has remained in dire poverty and considered a “failed experiment” in autonomy in the past, officials said.
“The road to peace may be long and rough. But I am glad that we finally reached its end point,” Duterte said in a speech Friday during the ceremony in Manila, where some 300 former MILF rebels were present, including field commanders who once led some of the fiercest battles against government forces on southern Mindanao Island.
These included Abdullah Macapaar (pictured) who is known by the nom de guerre “Commander Bravo” and was reputed as one of the most hardcore guerrillas.
“My only hope is that we put to rest the bitter memories of the past so that we can build a new region that is bound not by ethnic nor religious affiliation but by common aspiration for peaceful coexistence among our fellow Filipinos,” the president said.
He also expressed hope that Murad and his team would oversee the transition period smoothly, especially the decommissioning of MILF’s firearms and former combatants.
“We are very happy but at the same time I am also worried because we are facing an unchartered territory and governance,” Mohaqher Iqbal said, the rebel group’s chief negotiator and a member of its council, said, adding that he could not “guarantee” the success of the autonomous region.
The autonomous Muslim region was ratified by a majority of voters in at least five southern provinces where a plebiscite on ratifying the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which granted autonomy to MILF, took place in two stages – on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6.
The referendum was the final step in a peace pact that MILF signed with Manila four years ago.
The law aims to give the impoverished Philippine south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
But smaller Muslim factions that splintered from MILF have allied with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, which has been shifting its operations to other parts of the globe as its forces have lost territory and face total defeat in its traditional strongholds inside Syria and Iraq.
In 2018, a car bomb explosion on Basilan, an island in the southern Philippines, killed 11 people, while a New Year’s Eve bombing killed two others at a shopping mall in Cotabato city. And six days after the Jan. 21 vote, IS claimed responsibility for a twin bomb attack that killed 23 people during Sunday Mass at a church in southern Jolo island.
Philippine authorities blamed the Basilan and Jolo bombings on IS affiliates led by Abu Sayyaf Group militants, while they accused the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a MILF splinter group, of carrying out the Cotabato attack.
The military has been carrying out near daily bombing runs targeting Abu Sayyaf positions in Jolo since the church bombing, leading to heavy rebel casualties of late.
Laying down their weapons
MILF has said that it would decommission its firearms gradually, although not everyone believes the rebel group will do so. For one, no one knows exactly how many firearms MILF has, and many of its commanders still have pending cases in local courts for past violence related to the rebellion.
Nabil Tan, an undersecretary for the peace process, said efforts were under way to grant amnesty to the former rebels, a political process that would take time to complete.
“We’re trying to fast track the amnesty, but you know the amnesty has to be concurred with by Congress, so we're working on that,” Tan said.
At least 10 MILF commanders were facing criminal charges, and 35,000 to 40,000 ex-fighters and their relatives would be covered by an amnesty based on a list provided to the government by the MILF leadership, Tan said.
“It’s a continuing process. They have submitted already the personalities, but we are trying to track the cases, the courts where they’re filed,” Tan said.
MILF negotiator Iqbal said their forces would also assist the security forces in going after Islamic State militants in the south.
“We don’t have the police and military power but we will help in maintaining the peace in the island,” Iqbal said.
Residents of the south who had seen and experienced war said they welcomed the new MILF-led autonomous region with guarded optimism.
Ustadz Nash Manalao, 64, said he still remembered the “all-out war” between the government and the MILF nearly 10 years ago, when the rebels launched widespread attacks after the courts rejected a proposed peace deal.
“My house in Kauswagan (town) was burned down along with other houses owned by Maranaos,” Manalao said, referring to a local Muslim tribe.
Manalao said the armed men and soldiers who burned his house and the others made sure that those they torched were owned by Maranaos. He said many Maranao fled on foot to safety, only to find massive fires elsewhere.
They trekked through jungles until they reached Marawi city, then a safe haven, where they stayed for months. Marawi, however, was reduced to rubble in 2017 following a five-month battle between government forces and IS-linked militants who had seized the city.
Manalao, a former guerrilla who had belonged to the larger Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), said he could have taken up arms but decided to stay away.
“The … war was between the MILF and government. It was not our war,” Manalao said. The MILF split from the MNLF in 1978, after MILF dropped its independence bid and sought to negotiate limited autonomy.
In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace pact with Manila, leading to the creation of a Muslim autonomous area. That, however, was considered a failed experiment, and the autonomy offered to the MILF this time around was expected to be better – at least on paper.
“You must stay true to the peace agreement you have signed. We are mujahideen and we have our word of honor,” said Manalao, when asked what advice he would give to the MILF.
Jocelyn Maglangit, 51, said she is was wary of the future despite the signing of the autonomy law.
She recalled boarding a leaking boat to escape the violence a decade ago.
“I just held onto my baby as others tried to bail out the water,” Maglangit said. “I hope our future will be peaceful but I am also scared.”
CORRECTION: Camp Bilal is located in Lanao del Norte province. A photo caption in an earlier version incorrectly said that the camp was in Lanao del Sur province.