SIMUAY, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao (MindaNews/16 June) – For President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, Tuesday’s ceremonial turnover of 55 high-powered firearms and 20 crew-served weapons of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the decommissioning of 145 combatants who used to carry these weapons, is ”truly historic” for the Filipino nation because “now, we have the chance to right the narrative of suffering together.”
At the gymnasium in the compound of the old Maguindanao Capitol, Aquino noted that the MILF took this important step even if the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) “remains uncertain” and the Bangsamoro Transition Authority “is yet to be established.”
Aquino said that in handing over their firearms to the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB), the former combatants of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) are “fully aware of the threats to their own safety brought about by private armed groups, but they are doing this nonetheless; they are telling us: ‘Brother, this weapon that I used to defend myself, I no longer need it. I wholeheartedly entrust my safety to you. Brother, I lay these weapons down today, because I believe that, like me, you are determined to transform our society and our very lives.’”
For MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, Tuesday’s historic event marks the beginning of “the long walk towards transformation, not surrender, to a higher struggle – the start of the transformation of the MILF from an armed revolutionary organization to a political organization ready to govern and serve the Bangsamoro people.”
Murad cited three other transformations — of the Bangsamoro from a “state of conflict and underdevelopment to a state of peace and prosperity;” of the Philippines to “be more just, more inclusive and to granting space to the Bangsamoro people to direct our lives, as we want it in accordance with (our) deepest spiritual values,” and of “control towards partnership and autonomy.”
Earlier on Tuesday, before the decommissioning program started, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal admitted to reporters that this was a “very unpopular” decision, a description he later rephrased as “very difficult” but which they had to do in compliance with the signed agreements.
The Annex on Normalization, the last of four annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which they signed on January 25, 2015 provides for four phase. Tuesday’s symbolic decommissioning formally ended Phase 1.
Peace for Peace
Iqbal used to quote the expression, “if you want peace, prepare for war” but in his speech at the decommissioning, he said, “if you want peace, prepare for peace.”
He talked about the MILF being in a crossroad, that after over 17 years of negotiations, they are confronted with the reality of two situations – the road to a dark and fearful Bangsamoro “without hope, without peace, without justice” or the road to a Bangsamoro that is prosperous and free, “where children and can dream to be whoever they want to be and are given the opportunity to reach their dreams.”
“We in the MILF, have made a choice. We choose a Bangsamoro that is happy and peaceful. We choose security over insecurity. We choose freedom over tyranny. We choose development over poverty,” Iqbal said.
“Consider this a dry run,” government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said of Tuesday’s symbolic rites.
“Marami pa yan, libo-libo pa” (there’s more, thousands more), waiting to be decommissioned once the parties move on to the next phases. The next phase involves the decommissioning of 30% of the MILF’s weapons and forces, upon the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.
The turning in of the weapons to the IDB, she said, represents the “big decision” that the MILF has made, “to undergo transformation from being an armed group into a social movement, from being an army at war to become disciples of a nonviolent social change.”
Ferrer said there is no other reason for Tuesday’s event. It happened, she said, “because we choose peace, because we are staying the course of peace, sa hirap at ginahawa, in sickness and in health.”
Of the 145 combatants decommissioned, the youngest is 18, most are between 41 and 45 years old while quite a number are 60 years old and above, according to the profile of the combatants prepared by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).
Only seven have graduated from college, three reached college-level education, while most reached high-school level only due to “poverty and conflict.”
The decommissioned combatants, who belong to different commands of the MILF-BIAF, form part of 780 families whose household income, on the average, is P5,000.
An earlier press release from the OPAPP said decommissioned combatants “will undergo a registration, verification, and validation process, after which they will be provided immediate cash assistance amounting to P25,000 and PhilHealth Cards.”
They can also choose from three socio-economic packages: livelihood package where they can avail of training through TESDA or a literacy program through the Department of Education. Seed capital and tools/livestock will be provided to develop the combatant’s chosen source of livelihood; college study grant for those who wish to pursue higher education; and high school study grant for those who wish to continue their secondary education through formal schooling.
Symbols and Oversights
What the 145 combatants wore at the decommissioning may have been symbolic of their shift from combatant to civilian: camouflage pants and plain shirt in medium sea green.
They were seated inside the gym behind the guests from the local, regional, national and international community.
But a yellow barrier tape that fenced them off, along with the riser where the photographers and cameramen stood to shoot with ease the program onstage and the display of decommissioned weapons behind them, caused discomfort among those in the audience, including journalists watching from the bleachers.
The yellow barrier tape had “caution” written on it, in a series.
Before entering the gym, they sat under the shade of colorful umbrella tents, fenced off by the same “caution” barrier tape.
“Walang ibang ribbon” (there’s no other ribbon), an OPAPP official told MindaNews. A leader of a peace advocacy group said it must have been an oversight on the part of government but “it should exercise more sensitivity next time.”
The first phase of the Normalization involves the “signing of the Annex on Normalization up to the completion of the verification and validation conducted by the Independent Decommissioning Body.’ Tuesday’s event indicates Phase 1 is done with.
Phase 2 is “from the completion of validation of MILF forces up to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)” which will then involve the decommissioning of 30% of MILF forces and weapons;
Phase 3 is “from the ratification of the BBL up to the establishment and operationalization of the police force for the Bangsamoro,” which will lead to the decommissioning of 35% more of MILF forces and weapons or a total of 65% by then; while Phase 4 is “from the operationalization of the police force for the Bangsamoro up to two months prior to the signing of the Exit Agreement, provided that the evaluation of the panels with the participation of the Third Party Monitoring Team and Facilitator that all the commitments of the parties, except the remaining stage of decommissioning, has been completed.” This last phase involves the decommissioning of the remaining MILF forces and weapons or a total of 100% by then.
Normalization does not involve only the decommissioning of the MILF but also the redeployment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
In Phase 1, the Joint Normalization Committee recommends criteria for AFP redeployment, with the Joint Peace and Security Committee (JPSC) and Joint Peace and Security Teams (JPST) initiating work on disbandment of Private Armed Groups (PAGs).
Phase 2, which ends with the ratification of the BBL, marks the start of the implementation of AFP redeployment; deactivation of the S/CAAs or the Special Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit; actions against PAGs; firearms acontrol and management.
Phase 3 continues with the implementation of AFP redeployment; continuing actions against PAGs; firearms control and management while Phase 4 involves continuing redeployment; continuing actions against PAGs; firearms control and management.
“This is our time”
Murad began his speech by saying that while Tuesday’s event may have been about statistics for some, for them it is not. “I see 145 stories of struggle, of pain, of hopelessness, and even of death. Yet I also see 145 stories of hope and faith that indeed peace is near and that all the sacrifices have been worth it. I see not only their stories but my story as well and the stories of all the mujahideens who have given their lives, their intelligence, their talents to the struggle to protect the Bangsamoro People. What we have today are the stories of the whole Bangsamoro — oppression, tyranny and yes, liberation.”
President Aquino ended his speech with an appeal to the public, spoken in Filipino: “We have a debt to our brothers and sisters in the Bangsamoro. Now, we have the chance to right the narrative of suffering together. This is our time. This is what our fallen countrymen fought for. Let us show those who sacrificed their lives, our countrymen, and the entire world: Though we may come from different contexts and hold different beliefs, because we have been brought together by trust and by care for one another, there is no challenge that we cannot surpass as one nation.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)