Former separatist guerrillas formally assumed the leadership of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines on Tuesday, despite the presence of Islamic State-linked militants in the region and discontent from ex-colleagues about being left out.
At a ceremony in southern Cotabato city, Murad Ebrahim, who led the 10,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during decades of separatist rebellion, swapped his bush jacket for formal clothes as he took the reins as interim leader of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“Now the government that we have longed dreamt of, fought and struggled for, is finally establish in our homeland,” Murad said. “The trust and responsibility over the Bangsamoro government is now in our hands. We are accountable for it.”
Ebrahim now heads an 80-member team in leading the BARMM, 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.
The former guerrillas were now “entering another level of our jihad” – an era of battling graft and other ills that for years had prevented the mineral-rich Muslim region from prospering, he said.
Ebrahim appealed to the public to work with them and improve the lot of many impoverished areas in the south that militants, including Islamic State (IS) extremists, have used as a breeding ground to recruit new fighters.
Ebrahim also announced the officials that would assumed plum positions in BARMM. These include Mohagher Iqbal, the former MILF chief negotiator who will now be minister for education, and Sammy Al-Mansour, the MILF’s military chief, who will take over as the new environment minister.
At the same time, MILF Vice Chair for Political Affairs Ghadzali Jaafar was named speaker of parliament, while Naguib Sinarimbo will be minister for local government. Ebrahim will hold his concurrent position as the head of public works.
The autonomous Muslim region was ratified by a majority of voters in at least five southern provinces through a Jan. 21 and Feb. 6 plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which granted autonomy to MILF.
The referendum was the final step in a peace pact that MILF signed with Manila four years ago.
But smaller Muslim factions that splintered from MILF have allied with Islamic State, which has been trying to establish a home base in Southeast Asia after the group lost territory in the Middle East, analysts and officials have said.
Acknowledging the threat of IS, Ebrahim said: “We recognize the enormous challenge we will be facing.”
Members of the new leadership team of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are pictured during a ceremony in Cotabato, Philippines, Feb. 26, 2019. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]
The historic assumption of MILF leaders occurred as former colleagues and some influential leaders in the region protested their leadership. They critics questioned their ability to govern the island, where militants are active and some members of the transition body have previously worked in the failed autonomous region.
Attorney Emmanuel Fontanilla, a spokesman for Muslim leader Nur Misuari, said over the weekend that they would not recognize Ebrahim’s leadership. Another Muslim religious leader from the province of Lanao, lawyer Firdausi Abbas, said they would establish a new faction in protest of the MILF’s “virtual dictatorship” in BARMM.
Abbas, a recognized Sultan of Lanao, also questioned the ability of appointed transition members to govern in the region.
“I do not believe that Murad is qualified to be chief minister. I don’t think that he even has the vision to make this work,” he said.
Misuari is the overall leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which began the Muslim insurgency in the south. Ebrahim’s group broke away from MNLF in the 1970s after the latter opted to negotiate autonomy instead of a separate state.
The government signed a peace deal with the MNLF in 1996, but Misuari’s group failed to lift the Muslim south out of dire poverty. The state later considered it a “failed experiment.”
In 2013, an increasingly sidelined Misuari led a siege of the southern city of Zamboanga, torching some 10,000 homes in violence that left over 200 dead. It was put down after two weeks, and Misuari went back underground.
When Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, he engaged Misuari in talks and dropped all charges against him. At the weekend, the president met with Misuari in Manila for brief talks and to address “rumblings” in the MNLF.
“The meeting with the MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari lasted I think only about 15 minutes,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters on Tuesday.
“They are going to meet again. What transpired last night was the president told the chairman that he admired his patience and he apologized for not having implemented or enforced or whatever agreements that they had previously.”
Panelo said both men agreed to talk again at a future date, and that Misuari did not address the complaints of the MNLF. Misuari was also assured about “equitable distribution of representation” in the new autonomous region.Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato.