COTABATO CITY: Barely six months since its inception, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), led by Chief Minister Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, continues to show positive signs of bringing genuine peace to the Philippines’ restive south.
With the decommissioning process for the 40,000 combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) underway this week, Murad told Arab News that leaders of other armed groups in the region are now considering dropping their weapons to live normal lives, too.
BIAF is the military wing of the MILF, once the largest Muslim insurgent group in the Philippines, which Murad also heads.
Interviewed at his BARMM office, Murad said that “some factions” of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are considering returning to the folds of the law.
In 2014, both the BIFF, a splinter group of the MILF, and the ASG, the most violent militant organization in Mindanao, pledged allegiance to Daesh. Neither the BIFF nor the ASG is led by one leader, as they have also splintered into several factions.
“For our part, we continue to reach out to these groups, trying to convince them to give the BARMM a chance and join us in developing our homeland,” he said. “Initially, they have signified that they might be interested … and that’s a good development,” Murad continued.
“From the BIFF, there are two groups that are responsive, and a faction from the Abu Sayyaf, both their leaders and members,” Murad said. “We are hoping they would really heed our call.”
Murad said that there has been a reduction of violence in the region based on their own monitoring. The last major violent incident was the bombing of an army command post in Sulu in June this year, which killed eight people and injured 22 others.
Earlier, Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez said that if the other armed groups saw the fruits of this process (of decommissioning), he believed it would encourage them to lay down their arms.
Aside from the various Moro fronts whose members still bear weapons, there are other armed groups operating in Mindanao such as private armies, communist insurgents, and extremist organizations.
According to Galvez, the main goal of the government is for non-state armed groups to become irrelevant in the country. Based on his informal conversations with representatives of these armed groups, some of them have already “expressed their desire to be a part of the decommissioning process.”
“The willingness to give up their firearms is already a sign that they want to change their lives,” he said.
The decommissioning of the former BIAF members is part of the normalization track of the MILF-Government of the Philippines peace agreement. The combatants, their families and communities are to receive a comprehensive socioeconomic package that includes social protection package, sustainable livelihood programs, capacity-building training, health benefits and educational assistance.
Through these interventions, it is envisioned that the ex-fighters will be able to return to mainstream society, and the six government-acknowledged MILF camps and communities will be transformed into peaceful, productive and resilient communities.
The package for the ex-MILF fighters who undergo decommissioning and the prospect of starting a new life appears to appeal to some leaders and members of the other armed groups.
But a senior government official, who asked not to be named, has clarified that the Philippine government does not and will not negotiate with criminals and terrorists.
“There are no negotiations with these groups, especially the ASG and the BIFF. If they want to denounce violence, they can turn in their firearms but they must answer for the crimes they have committed,” the official said.
“They can go back to society but they won’t receive the same package as the former MILF combatants. However, the government will give them a chance. If they can prove their innocence, then they can avail themselves of government assistance.”