International Alert urges MILF, military to disband BIFF as polls near

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 30 March) – Violence might escalate in Maguindanao province as the new Bangsamoro region gears up for its first ever elections next year if the Islamic State-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) will not be neutralized, International Alert Philippines has warned.

A unit of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. MindaNews file photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

The peacebuilding non-government organization (NGO) noted the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), apart from the military, plays a crucial role to avert the escalation of armed conflict in Maguindanao, the front’s bailiwick.

“The military and the MILF will need to show greater resolve in neutralizing the BIFF and other extremist groups before the elections,” Alert said in a statement Monday.

“For the MILF, it will mean disregarding kinship ties in going after the BIFF, even if it leads to internal fissures,” it added.

On March 18, clashes erupted between the military and Karialan faction of the BIFF in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town and the Dawlah Islamiya–Turaife Group.

Data from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao–Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence (BARMM–READi) showed that at least 9,347 families or 46,735 individuals were displaced from the towns of Shariff Saidona Mustapha, Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Unsay and Mamasapano.

Maj. Gen. Juvymax Uy, 6th Infantry Division chief, said troops clashed with the members of the BIFF–Karialan faction and the Dawlah Islamiyah–Turaife Group, leaving 14 enemies dead after four days of fighting.

Uy ordered the troops to intensify the military operations to neutralize the extremist groups.

“We also offer them a peaceful means of laying down their firearms, return to the folds of the law, and live a peaceful life with their families,” he said in a statement.

Interior and Local Government Minister Naguib Sinarimbo said the BARMM government and the military have been relentlessly exerting efforts to flush out the BIFF, with the help of the MILF.

“We are saddened by the resumption of hostilities triggered by the ISIS-inspired group’s movement in the ‘SPMS box’. The MILF forces, in coordination with AFP, is now engaging this ISIS-inspired groups,” Sinarimbo said.

The “SPMS box” is collective name for the four municipalities of Shariff Aguak, Pagatin (now Datu Saudi Ampatuan), Mamasapano and Datu Salibo, which are strongholds of the BIFF.

International Alert said the firefight that began March 18 in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town was the latest episode involving the military and the BIFF, as monitored by the NGO since January through its Critical Events Monitoring System that receives on-the-ground reports from local contacts.

Francisco Lara Jr., senior peace and conflict adviser of International Alert Philippines, said the clashes involving the BIFF–Karialan faction could be part of a gradual yet deliberate escalation of violence that might lead to a major political battle before or during the 2022 elections.

The first Bangsamoro parliamentary election is slated for 2022 along with the national election.

Several election watchdogs have proposed to desynchronize the parliamentary and national elections. Another wants to delay the parliamentary election by extending the life of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim administrator of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) that is led by MILF members and their nominees, by three years.

“Reports from our early response network reveal how some local politicians are orchestrating violent incidents in Datu Saudi Ampatuan and nearby towns to depict the BTA as ineffective in improving the security in this conflict-ridden area and hence weaken the legitimacy and authority of the Bangsamoro transition government,” Lara said.

“Many politicians are interested in seizing control of the BTA and the BARMM if elections are held as scheduled in 2022. Others are aware that the MILF is also planning to field candidates against them in their local bailiwicks,” Lara added.

The violence from extremist groups such as the BIFF and the shadow economies in drugs and weapons will combine and feed into the violence surrounding these political contests, Alert said.

International Alert Philippines said that if the violence in Maguindanao continues, the Bangsamoro “may experience an attack on a political or cultural center, in a pattern similar to the chain of events that led to the capture of Butig and Marawi City in 2016 and 2017, respectively, by the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)

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