MILF begins to disband army, turn over weapons

MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim (wearing songkok) and Philippine President Benigno Aquino (in yellow) inspecting rebel firearms to be decommissioned during a ceremony in Mindanao on Tuesday.
MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim (wearing songkok) and Philippine President Benigno Aquino (in yellow) inspecting rebel firearms to be decommissioned during a ceremony in Mindanao on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move part of peace pact to end Philippine insurgency

THE Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday began decommissioning its 12,000-strong army, making good on a commitment made under a peace pact it signed last year to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies.

In a symbolic gesture, the Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group decommissioned 145 battled-hardened veterans and turned over to an international monitoring team 75 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, artillery pieces and a point-50 calibre machine gun.

"This is why I cannot say that we are gambling with our country's fate by talking peace with the MILF," President Benigno Aquino said during ceremonies held across one of the MILF's biggest camps in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

He said: "Gambling is a matter left to chance... What we are witnessing today instead is a solid testament to the unreserved and honest participation of the MILF in our peace talks, and of their preparedness to abandon the path of violence."

The MILF pledged to return to the fold of the law in exchange for an autonomous Muslim region, known as Bangsamoro, in Mindanao.

However, the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law creating the region is facing opposition in Congress, and is unlikely to become a law before Mr Aquino steps down next year, pundits say.

Peace negotiators had expected smooth sailing for the Bill.

But in January this year, 44 police commandos were killed in a botched operation to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, in a remote village in Mamasapano town here in Maguindanao province. The men ran into hundreds of MILF fighters roused by the raid on Marwan's lairs.

The Mamasapano incident sparked public outrage, leading to a slew of congressional investigations that have since threatened to scuttle the MILF peace deal.

Last week, Congress adjourned without voting on the Bangsamoro law.

Amendments were introduced in the House of Representatives, but a lack of quorum failed to have the Bill sent to the floor for a vote.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, meanwhile, junked the government-drafted version of the law, and said he would propose a substitute Bill.

Mr Marcos, chair of the Senate committee on local government, has questioned basic provisions of the Bangsamoro law, including the provinces to be included in the autonomous Muslim region.

Turning to lawmakers who are blocking passage of the Bangsamoro law, Mr Aquino said: "You cannot say that you are for peace, even as you make the passage of the (law) difficult. It is as if you are still not content with making the law pass through the eyes of nine needles, that you will add a 10th and an 11th. It is as if you have no other goal than to ensure that there is no space for peace."

The peace pact, which Malaysia helped to broker, concludes 17 years of negotiations that have spanned five Philippine presidents.

For over 40 years, Muslim rebels have been battling for independence in Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland. Some 150,000 have died in the conflict.

The peace pact calls on the MILF to order its men to give up their arms.

That, however, will not happen till a Bangsamoro government is formed and its leaders elected.

For Mr Jacob Palao, 57, yesterday's decommissioning and turnover rites marked the end of a war he has been waging for over 40 years.

Like most of the 144 other MILF combatants who have agreed to return to civilian life, Mr Palao is a veteran of many encounters with government forces, including an intense two-month military campaign to dislodge the MILF from its 10,000ha stronghold known as Camp Abubakar.

He lost many friends in that war.

"I know we are taking a big risk by giving up our arms, but we are doing this because we believe there is a real chance for peace now. There is hope now," he said.

rdancel@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'MILF begins to disband army, turn over weapons'. Print Edition | Subscribe