Thousands of ex-separatist rebels poised to become Philippine police officers

Jeoffrey Maitem
2022.07.13
Cotabato, Philippines
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Thousands of ex-separatist rebels poised to become Philippine police officers Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas line up in formation in the jungles of Datu Odin Sinsuat town in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, July 29, 2009. Five years later, the rebel group would sign a peace deal with Manila, ending their separatist struggle that began in 1978.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

More than 7,000 former Muslim separatist rebels are a step closer to being recruited to the national police force that once hunted them in a volatile region of the southern Philippines, after they passed an entrance exam – the basic qualification for recruitment.

For Ryan Saavedra, a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) foot soldier who took the test, making the cut brings him closer to his dream of securing a future for his young daughter, who belongs to a new generation that he hopes will no longer live in fear of war.

“Allahu Akbar, our prayer was heard by Allah. I never expected that I would pass the test,” said Saavedra, a wiry 36-year-old.

Born and reared in Sultan Kudarat, a town in southern Maguindanao province, Saavedra is a father to a 1-year-old daughter. He wants her to grow up to see him as a police officer instead of an enemy of the state.

“I want my daughter to be proud of her father and finish her studies so she could get a job in the future,” Saavedra told BenarNews.

He and other ex-guerrillas who passed the exam must now overcome two more hurdles – passing a screening and undergoing physical training – before they can be inducted as police officers serving the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), as part of a peace deal struck between Manila and MILF, the main rebel group here, in 2014.

The agreement stated that former members of MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) be given the opportunity for employment as law enforcers, said Mohd Asnin Pendatun, cabinet secretary for the autonomous region’s government.

“We are very grateful that we have a high passing rate for the qualifying exam and we are very happy because the sacrifice of our applicants has paid off,” he said in a statement. “We understand that the validation process of the application is meticulous because we have to ensure that applicants are legitimate MILF and MNLF members.”

As many as 7,145 ex-members of MILF and MNLF, out of the more than 11,000 people associated with those groups who sat for the National Police Commission’s “special qualifying eligibility examinations” in May, have passed, the Professional Regulation Commission said.

The results were vetted and released only this week, nearly two months after the first batch of former guerrillas sat for the exam.

Rashid Karon, another former MILF guerrilla in his 30s, said he enjoyed a special dinner with his family on Tuesday night after learning that he had passed.

“I am one step away from becoming a policeman,” he told BenarNews.

Like Saavedra and Karon, Abdul Hakim Gandarosa, 26, a resident of a village in Marawi City, thanked his family after he posted the highest score in the special examination with a grade of about 92.

In 2017, when he was 21 years old, Islamic State-linked militants ransacked Marawi in a failed attempt to turn the lakeshore city into its caliphate in Southeast Asia.

As with other young Muslims, Gandarosa said he was being recruited to be part of the IS faction, but refused.

The fighting in and around Marawi lasted five months before government forces broke the militant siege, leaving more than 1,000 IS fighters, police, soldiers and civilians dead.

Gandarosa said he wants to help prevent similar attacks in the future, if he eventually becomes a police officer.

“It would be hard, but I have to enforce the law,” he said. “And I will not hesitate to pull the trigger if my life is at risk.”

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Former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas take an entrance test for the Philippine National Police in Cotabato city, southern Philippines, May 29, 2022. [Handout photo/Moro Islamic Liberation Front]

Pendatun, the BARMM cabinet secretary, said the government of the autonomous region would continue to help applicants in their efforts to be inducted into the national police force.

“This is just a testament that symbolized the partnership between the national and Bangsamoro governments for the peace process,” he said.

The MILF signed a peace agreement with the central government in 2014, ending its long-running separatist insurgency in the Mindanao region. The group split from the MNLF in 1978, while the latter signed a separate peace deal with Manila in 1996.

One of the conditions of the MILF-government peace deal was the integration of select fighters into the country’s police and military forces, subject to a rigorous selection process.

Apart from recruiting former militants into the Philippine National Police (PNP), the autonomous government is overseeing the disarming and decommissioning of weapons in the possession of 40,000 ex-fighters.

Under the process, each former combatant who turns in weapons is expected to receive a cash payment, including money for education.

But bringing former enemies into the fold isn’t sitting well with all members of the national police force.

Seven years ago, 44 police commandos were killed in a fierce firefight with the MILF in the southern town of Mamasapano. The dead officers were on a secret mission to capture or kill Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan), one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted militants at the time.

The commandos hunted down and killed Marwan, but they became trapped in a firefight with the MILF guerrillas who believed they were being attacked by enemy forces. The debacle was described as the biggest single-day combat loss for the government in recent memory.

The fighting set back the peace process, and it was only after Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Benigno Aquino III as president that Congress passed a law giving autonomy to the areas in the south controlled by MILF.

Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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