5 years after its birth, Bangsamoro autonomous region struggles to control violence

Camille Elemia and Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
5 years after its birth, Bangsamoro autonomous region struggles to control violence Former Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels participate in a decommissioning process where they turned in their weapons, in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, Philippines, Aug. 3, 2023.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

An autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines that came out of a peace deal is struggling to end violence five years after being established and 15 months before its first-ever elections, analysts and the region’s top leader told BenarNews.

Weapons in the hands of many armed groups including former rebels and private armies, combined with the slow trickle of funds from Manila meant to lift the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) out of poverty, remain challenges, they said. 

“We have to admit there are many loose firearms in Bangsamoro,” Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim told BenarNews during an interview in his office at Cotabato City on Wednesday. “We have struggles with the decommissioning of combatants and the politicians’ private armies.” 

Murad, who became leader of the BARMM when it came into being on Feb. 26, 2019, previously headed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest among guerrilla groups in the southern Philippines. It waged a separatist war with Manila until it opted for autonomy under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, a peace deal signed in March 2014.

That agreement included a so-called normalization program, to be undertaken by the central government, the MILF, and a Joint Normalization Committee. The program mandates the decommissioning of combatants and their firearms and the disbanding of politicians’ private armed groups.  

Since its creation, the BARMM government has decommissioned only two-thirds of its target of 40,000 combatants and collected 7,000 firearms – a pace that analysts and politicians criticized as slow. Murad admitted there had been no progress on the private armies. 

Murad blamed the national government for inadequate funding of the normalization program.

Under the peace agreement, the national government must give former combatants a one-time cash assistance of 100,000 pesos (U.S. $1,783) as well as jobs, education and housing assistance. Murad said many of these promises had yet to be met. 

“Almost all of that, except the cash assistance, has not been delivered by the government. The problem is that there is no budget for the normalization track,” Murad said. 

01 PH-barmm-1.jpg
Murad Ebrahim, the former rebel leader who leads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is interviewed in Cotabato city, southern Philippines, Jan.31, 2024. [Camille Elemia/BenarNews]

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity (OPAPPRU), which is tasked to oversee the peace process, has to “solicit” from individual agencies to get funds for the services, Murad said. 

“The government has to act so the normalization process will succeed,” he said.

In 2024, OPAPPRU has an approved budget of 7 billion pesos ($124.8 million), with 901 million pesos ($16 million) allotted specifically for the BARMM’s normalization program. In previous years, the agency had been operating with an average overall budget of only 800 million pesos ($14.2 million).  

Officials at the office did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

The delay in benefits has already caused resentment among ex-combatants, which could create additional threats, analysts said. 

Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism analyst, said that the slow rate of decommissioning would be “another challenge for security teams in Mindanao.” 

“And I am afraid that the armed threats will emanate from those remaining combatants because they are raising serious issues that can undermine peace and order,” Banlaoi told BenarNews.

“Threats are evolving into a new form. My assessment is very alarming for those not yet decommissioned because these combatants can be a source of another form of violence in Mindanao, especially after the 2025 election in BARMM,” he said. 

Bangsamoro 2025 elections, clan wars

The Council for Climate and Conflict Action, an NGO, sees the prospect of conflicts this year tied to the potentially highly charged parliamentary elections in Bangsamoro and in other communities across the Philippines in 2025. 

“The preparation for the 2025 elections and the polls itself may ignite further violence and cause widespread human cost as former rebels, political warlords, and traditional elites vie for political power at the national, regional, and local level,” the council said in a Jan. 27 statement sent to BenarNews. 

The group said any legislative move in the interim parliament would be seen as a political move “to ensure the MILF’s win in the region.”

This includes gerrymandering, which resulted in the creation of three new municipalities from the towns of Datu Odin Sinsuat and Sultan Kudarat – a move opposed by local mayors as these are the only areas in the province of Maguindanao del Norte “that are not politically allied” with the MILF. 

The October 2023 village elections in BARMM, the council said, were “the bloodiest elections recorded in the last decade.” 

“Election-related violence is often intertwined or has escalated to clan feuding, and vice versa,” it said, adding that “violent extremism” persists. 

At least six people were killed. They were “not candidates, they were mere voters,” George Garcia, chairman of the Commission on Elections, said at the time.

Banlaoi, the counter-terrorism analyst, said that terrorism in the region has not been totally eradicated. 

“My current assessment of terrorism threat in the Philippines is that threats are diminishing, but not disappearing,” he said, citing the weakening of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi along with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao. 

Still, a bomb exploded during a Catholic Mass at a university gymnasium in Marawi City in December 2023, killing four and injuring 72 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The military has said that the bombing was an apparent retaliation for offensives that killed two senior militants.


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