COVID-19 Delays Handover of Former Rebels’ Weapons in Southern Philippines

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-09-15
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COVID-19 Delays Handover of Former Rebels’ Weapons in Southern Philippines Former combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) voluntarily turn over 920 high-powered firearms to a decommissioning body in Sultan Kudarat town, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, July 9, 2019.
[Mark Navales/BenarNews]

A government program to decommission the weapons of thousands of former separatist rebels in the southern Philippines has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte’s chief peace adviser said on Wednesday.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Carlito Galvez Jr. spoke about the setback while defending his request to the Senate finance committee for a 4.5 billion peso (U.S. $90 million) budget next year.

He said next year’s proposed budget includes funds that would go the National Amnesty Commission, which is processing application from the former fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had wanted an independent Muslim state in the southern island of Mindanao before striking a peace deal with the government in 2014.

“While our country faces immense challenges in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, the precious lives of millions of Filipinos in conflict-affected areas should not be compromised by budgetary constraints,” Galvez told the Senate committee.

“Beyond all of the signed peace agreements, documents and formalities, we recommend that we should not forget the human cost that any delays will inflict on vulnerable communities.”

During the deliberations, Galvez, said that only 12,000 former MILF fighters’ weapons had been decommissioned, or handed over to the authorities. The former separatist group’s leaders have said they have some 40,000 fighters with weapons, but analysts believe that the group is larger.

Galvez said 14,000 MILF combatants were supposed to be decommissioned this year, and the same number next year.

“So we are delayed [by] 28,000 already,” Galvez said.

The handover of weapons is part of the peace deal between the government and MILF, which led to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the southern Philippines.

Under the deal, each combatant who hands over weapons is expected to receive a cash payment, including money for education.

Galvez said he was hopeful that all fighters’ weapons would be fully decommissioned in three years.

“If … the COVID-19 situation will improve, we will finish the normalization program in 2024,” Galvez told the Senate committee.

Duterte’s peace chief Galvez said that his proposed budget for next year would also partly fund the deployment of additional joint peace and security teams to prevent hostilities, and a program to control the proliferation of light weapons and small arms inside the autonomous region.

Murad Ebrahim, head of MILF as well as of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, had told BenarNews last December that he was certain the remaining weapons of former rebels “will be decommissioned in the next two years.”

Murad heads the transitional local government in five provinces and a handful of districts that make up the autonomous region.

He had said the decommissioning process had been slow because of the pandemic, and because the former guerrillas were reluctant to give up their weapons amid ongoing threats and attacks from Islamic State group-linked militants, and disgruntled factions that broke away from MILF, Murad said.

“The violence has gone down, but there are many groups here that have splintered. Here in mainland Mindanao, we have the BIFF,” Murad told BenarNews, referring to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a small group that is known for audacious attacks on law enforcement.

MILF had signed a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the government in 2014 after 17 years of conflict and negotiations in Mindanao.

The agreement ended MILF’s rebellion – which began in the 1970s – to create a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. The group settled for expanded autonomy and its members agreed to turn in their weapons.

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