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MILF fighters surrender weapons

SULTAN KUDARAT: Hundreds of Muslim rebels began handing over their guns to foreign monitors on Saturday as part of a peace treaty aimed at ending a decades-long separatist insurgency that has left about 150,000 people dead.

BIG DAY Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels stand guard at the entry of Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat ahead of a weapons decommissioning ceremony that was attended by
President Rodrigo Duterte. AFP PHOTO

More than a thousand Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas turned in 940 weapons during the symbolic rite that is part of the step toward retiring 40,000 fighters in the coming years.


“The war is over… I have no firearms left,” Paisal Abdullah Bagundang, 56, a self-described veteran of more than 100 firefights with government security forces since the 1970s, said.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who witnessed the surrender of weapons, vowed that his administration would support the fighters’ transition to civilian lives.

In his speech during the launching of the second phase of the decommissioning of MILF combatants and weapons, Duterte assured the Moro rebels that the newly established Bangsamoro government was theirs.

“Do not be disheartened na nag-surrender ka ng armas (that you surrendered your firearms). Inyo na itong gobyerno na ito. Binigay na namin sa inyo (This government is yours. We have given it to you),” the President said.

“As we proceed with the decommissioning process, let me assure our MILF combatants that the government will assist you as you reintegrate into society and enjoy fruitful and productive civilian lives,” he added.

The President said he also looked forward to having the decommissioned MILF fighters “as government’s partners as we take further strides in securing lasting peace and order in Mindanao.”

“As our [decommissioned] combatants open a new chapter in [their] lives, I hope that they will be inspired to take this opportunity to improve their lives and create a better future for [their] families and loved ones as well,” Duterte said.

“Let us all celebrate this milestone, confident that we have started building a better and brighter future for our nation, where every Filipino — regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or ideological leanings — will have a chance to live in peace, prosperity, harmony [with] one another,” he added.

About 1,060 former MILF combatants, 920 firearms and 20 high-powered weapons were
decommissioned during the ceremony, which came seven months after the organic law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was ratified in a plebiscite.

The BARMM, which replaced the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, enjoys expanded land and water jurisdiction, greater fiscal autonomy and increased share in national government resources, among others.

The decommissioning is the final component of a peace accord signed by the government with the MILF in 2014, which will allow their reintegration into civilian communities.

But the disarmament will take time to make an impact in a place where violence is an almost daily threat.

A bomb hidden in a parked motorcycle exploded near a public market in Isulan town on Saturday, just hours before Duterte arrived.

Officials hope putting rebel weapons “beyond use” would nudge the region away from the mindset that gun-ownership is essential to ensuring survival.

Each retired fighter will receive P1 million, scholarships, health insurance and training to become productive civilians.

No surrender

Bangsamoro chief Minister Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim said the decommissioning process does not mean that they were surrendering.

“I would like to emphasize that the decommissioning doesn’t mean we have given up on what we used to fight for. It simply demonstrates our sincere and full commitment to fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities in the peace agreement, and we are now working with the government to achieve our goal of peace and development for the Bangsamoro,” Ebrahim said.

The firearms were handed to the Independent Decommissioning Body, composed of its chairman Ambassador Fatih Ulusoy of Turkey, vice chairman William Hovland of Norway, Lt. Col. Sherpor Nezam Bin Abdul Ghapor of Brunei, and four local experts jointly nominated by the MILF and the Government of the Philippines.

The decommissioning process “should not lead to expectations that it is going to result in a major deceleration in attacks,” said Francisco Lara, senior conflict adviser for Asia at watchdog group International Alert, noting that the general public in the region were also armed.

Acquiring a gun is “like buying fish in the market” in the southwestern provinces, where most of the Philippines’ Muslim minority live, MILF commander Murad Ebrahim told reporters.

But “if people no longer feel they need firearms to survive then they will easily give them up,” added Ebrahim, who is also chief minister of the area that has its own regional parliament, but no separate police force or military.

‘We are civilians now’

About a third of MILF combatants and their weapons are to be retired over the coming eight months in the first phase of the decommissioning process.

Rebels facing criminal cases related to the insurgency would be granted amnesty, while those qualified could train to become a soldier or a police officer, Duterte’s peace adviser Carlito Galvez told reporters.

“In order to have an enduring peace, we have to change the mindset of the people,” he said.

Suharto Abdullah, 36, told the Agence France-Presse that he had joined the MILF when he was 10 years old, but now plans to sell rice.

“We are civilians now and won’t be carrying guns anymore,” Abdullah said.

Saida Limgas, who took up arms 50 years ago, warned the weapons handover would not prevent her and others from picking up guns again if poverty continues to hound their communities.

“The war will resume if the government reneges on what it promised us,” said the 66-year-old, who said she dropped out of a Catholic-run high school and became a rebel courier and cook in 1969 after soldiers killed several of her cousins.

The second phase of decommissioning involving the main bulk of fighters kicks in next year, with the rest to undergo the process before 2022.

WITH CATHERINE VALENTE AND AFP

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