Report: Slow Reforms Could Push Former Philippine Muslim Rebels Back to Fighting

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-04-16
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Report: Slow Reforms Could Push Former Philippine Muslim Rebels Back to Fighting Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, addresses diplomats and other visitors at Camp Darapanan, the former guerrilla group’s base in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, July 6, 2017.
[Mark Navales/BenarNews]

A fragile peace in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines is at risk from armed groups who could sabotage the slow process toward normalization as economic momentum lags, an international conflict-monitoring group is warning.

The normalization process, which aims to bring a lasting peace to the Bangsamoro region after decades of war is behind schedule, with the coronavirus pandemic partly contributing to this, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report released Thursday.

“The peace process in the Bangsamoro, the majority-Muslim region of the southern Philippines, requires disarming some 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and ensuring both their smooth integration into civilian life and peace dividends for communities where they live,” the report said.

“Two years into a three-year transition period mapped out in a 2014 peace agreement, progress toward these goals, which the deal describes as ‘normalization,’ is lagging.”

At present, fewer than one-third of the former guerrillas have laid down their weapons, and the government has failed to speed up economic aid that would have enticed them to disarm, the report said.

Ex-guerrillas of the MILF, it added, also “are growing impatient with the government’s failure to distribute promised economic packages and delays in bringing development programs to camps where many of their members live.”

Murad Ebrahim, the leader of the MILF who also heads the transitional government in the Bangsamoro, is due to step down in 2022, but he has been lobbying to have his term extended. Murad has taken his case to President Rodrigo Duterte, who has agreed, although it is up to the Philippine Congress to decide whether Murad can stay in power beyond 2022.

And with the transition period nearing its end – as stipulated in a peace deal struck between Manila and the MILF seven years ago – the government should step up its support to the former rebels and work towards disbanding “private armies” that could cause problems in the region, the International Crisis Group reported.

Already, the military and police have their hands full in trying to control various armed groups in the region, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. BIFF is made up of ex-MILF guerrillas who splintered from the group after it settled for autonomy.

Philippine authorities have blamed BIFF, which has declared support for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, for a spate of attacks and bombings in recent years on Mindanao Island.

According to the report, continued delays in reforms could push former MILF fighters into returning to the jungle to fight, or other militant groups may step up attacks and further erode peace prospects for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), as the regional government is known.

“There are plenty of armed groups in the Bangsamoro that might exploit the moment’s fragility. A loss of momentum could also threaten what are currently reasonably peaceful relations among the majority Moro Muslims, Christians and other ethno-religious groups,” the report said.

“Whether or not the government extends the 2022 deadline for the political transition, delays in carrying out these measures could frustrate former insurgents and raise the risk of violence,” the International Crisis Group said.

The transitional government led by Murad and the MILF controls the autonomous region until local voters go to the polls next year to elect their own leaders.

According to a Philippine analyst, pro-IS groups are exploiting the perceived failure in the transitional government’s performance and using it to recruit new members.

“Their performance deficit is being used by pro-ISIS elements in encouraging young people to continue the arm struggle,” Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told BenarNews, using another acronym for Islamic State.

“Leaders in the autonomous region cannot perform well because they are busy fixing the bureaucracy and trying to exert [themselves] on services needed by their people,” he added.

Naguib Sinarimbo, a spokesman for Murad and who serves as BAARM’s interior minister, acknowledged that there was dissatisfaction among MILF members due to delays in the implementation of the socio-economic component of the roadmap to normalization.

“Those are legitimate grievances that we are working on and there is no indication our members will be joining other armed groups,” Naguib told BenarNews.

“The leadership is still in control.”

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