MANILA: From Sept. 7, nearly 12,000 former members of the Philippines’ largest insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are going back to normal life.
“We are set to decommission the first 30 percent of our combatants, scheduled on Sept. 7, tentatively. This will involve around 12,000 combatants, and the next 35 percent will be decommissioned after the regional security structure is set up,” Murad Ibrahim, chairman of MILF, said in an exclusive interview with Arab News.
He added that the final third will be decommissioned once “all the agreements have been officially implemented.”
Ibrahim knows a thing or two about second chances.
Once one of the most wanted insurgents in the Philippines, the 70-year-old former rebel turned MILF chief is today the interim chief minister of the newly-formed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
He’s hoping that the government will extend the same space to the first group of combatants to be decommissioned next month as MILF begins its political chapter in the restive south of the majority Catholic nation.
The process has been years in the making.
In 2014, the MILF signed a landmark deal with the government to end a separatist insurgency which killed nearly 120,000 people, displaced two million, and helped radical groups gain a foothold in the region since the 1970s.
The pact which led to the formation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) — a peace deal that will allow Muslims in the south to start moving toward achieving self-rule by 2022 — hopes to also tackle extremism and end half a century of conflict within Mindanao.
“We are already in the implementing process [of the BBL]. There are two tracks in the peace process. One is the political track, which includes the setting up of the Bangsamoro government, and the other is the normalization track, which also includes the decommissioning of our combatants,” he said.
In a landmark ratification, which had the support of the Philippine Congress and the Bangsamoro people, the BBL was passed in 2014.
Five years later, on March 29 this year, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority was launched.
“The transition government led by the MILF will serve as the governing structure in the territory in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. We are now fully functioning. The 15 different ministries... have already been set up and are functioning well... we have already passed around 15 laws during the four months of our operation of the government,” he said.
Next on the agenda, Ibrahim says, is to ensure that the first group of combatants are able to adapt to normal life.
“We have agreed with the Philippines government that there will be some waiving of qualifications both for the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of Philippines, so that any of our men who want to apply for enlistment will be ... admitted,” he said.
The task, however, is not without its challenges.
“The first challenge we are facing is [that] we have been a revolutionary organization and so we have to transform from the revolutionary organization to governance,” he said.
For that purpose, he said, the group needs “to capacitate our people for governance.”
“A lot of structure [is needed] in order to fit in with the central government. On the aspect of normalization, we are still facing some security challenges, especially from the small groups who did not join... We are trying to open our door for dialogue with all these groups, to gradually convince them to join,” he said.
The other groups in question include the Moro National Liberation Front [MNLF] and several offshoots of the Abu Sayyaf.
Ibrahim said that the need of the hour is to “mobilize the support of the entire Bangsamoro people.”
“Once the [smaller groups] no longer enjoy the support of the people, they will be... forced to join. We have been opening our door for dialogue and reconciliation with them — both the Abu Sayyaf group and its splinter groups...and then the MNLF. As far as the MNLF is concerned, I think more than half of them have already joined our group...,” he said.
However, he added that part of the challenge remains, especially in analizing the threats posed by Daesh.
The issue of how to handle Daesh fighters and their families looking to return to their homelands is a conundrum facing many countries, including the Philippines.
Several media reports this year have suggested that there were Filipino nationals among the thousands of suspected Daesh members who surrendered to US-backed forces following the group’s territorial defeat in Syria.
The Philippines government, for its part, has said that those who went to the Middle East to train with Daesh were not just from the Philippines, but from other areas of the Southeast Asian region too.
“As far as Daesh is concerned, I think our finding is they have not really built a structure in our area. But there are penetrations — there are some individual groups coming from the neighboring areas of Malaysia and Indonesia. Also, some are even coming from the Middle East — small groups. But they are gradually diminishing and we see that they do not enjoy the support of the people,” Ibrahim said.
He added that the immediate challenge was the reconstruction of Bangsmoro, which has been “devastated after more than 40 years of conflict and war.”
“We need to reconstruct and that is why we are calling for more investors from outside because we see that that is the only way we can rebuild and run the economy,” he said.
And while that may seem like an uphill task at the moment, Ibrahim said there is no room for failure.
“Now, we have three levels of organization...the MILF, which is still intact, but is no longer advocating for a revolutionary movement; it will be turning into social movement. Then, we have the political party, which will be the mechanism for us to ensure that we control the government in the area, and then the government itself. We have already elevated to another level of struggle — from the armed struggle to the political struggle. Now we are moving to a democratic process and always strengthening our organization,” he said.