MANILA: Clad in green army uniform, 219 ex-members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) turned peacekeepers after finishing their basic training with the police and military at Camp Lucero in North Cotabato.
After decades fighting government forces in fierce battles, the new recruits will now work alongside their former foes in the country’s volatile south.
With the rank of reservists, they will form part of the Joint Peace and Security Team (JPST) tasked with the job of maintaining law and order in MILF communities and camps during the decommissioning of 40,000 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) and their firearms.
The BIAF is the armed wing of the MILF, and the decommissioning program is being carried out under the terms of a 2014 peace accord between the Philippine government and the rebel group. The training of the former combatants to become peacekeepers was part of the agreement.
Their training started on Aug. 1 and culminated in a graduation ceremony held on Tuesday at the headquarters of the 602nd Infantry Brigade, in Camp Lucero.
Addressing the new recruits at the graduation event, Eduard Guerra, minister of finance, budget and management for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), said: “This is a historical moment. You are now part of history … You are now officially declared as officers of peace and security, not only for Bangsamoro but the entire country.
“You will be the first batch of the JPST to be deployed where you will be joining your comrades from the PNP (Philippine National Police) and contingents from the army.”
He pointed out their important role “in this critical stage of decommissioning,” saying they would be “the ones to protect and secure our (MILF) communities.”
Congratulating the former BIAF members, Guerra said: “You really persevered in your training. Keep that perseverance in your hearts and minds.”
Maj. Gen. Diosdado C. Carreon, commander of the 6th Infantry Division (6ID) based in Maguindanao province, also addressed the ex-guerrillas and said: “When I shook hands with each of you at the start of your training, you were then wearing blue jeans, rubber shoes, and T-shirts. Today the uniform you are wearing is no different from mine. We are no longer different; we are now one.
“That means you are now legitimate members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I put emphasis on the values as to how this could help you relearn the basics and assess yourselves both in terms of knowledge, concepts, and application of combat skills,” Carreon added.
Bravery medal recipient, Lt. Gen. Cirilito E. Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), hailed the former MILF fighters for turning into ambassadors of peace. “It was a month-long training ... here in this military camp that was once a battlefield but now a haven for all of us.
“You are an important milestone in the history of the BARMM. Your role will be as important as that of every member of the security forces.”
As well as their JPST work, the reservists will also help in the country’s fight against terrorism and illegal drugs in the region.
Sobejana later told Arab News that he was “very, very happy” to welcome the former MILF fighters into their ranks. The commander said: “I think I’m the happiest person, because I have been fighting this war (the insurgency in Mindanao) for more than three decades and it almost cost my own life.
“I almost died in Basilan (a city in the Philippines) 24 years ago, but despite my wounds I am not angry at all because I turned my wounds into wisdom.
“I really expect that we can put an end to the security challenges not only here in the Bangsamoro region but across Mindanao, because it is here where bombings in different areas start. So, if we can cut the source of hostilities, I think there will finally be peace in this part of the country,” Sobejana added.
The military chief revealed that Camp Lucero, where Tuesday’s graduation ceremony took place, was named after his classmate, Capt. Lucero, who was killed during clashes with MILF fighters at the Mal-Mar dam in Carmen town in April 1996.
Sobejana stressed the need for trust on all sides and encouraged qualified former BIAF members to enroll on the army candidate training course to become regular troopers. “They are rebels no more. They are now one with us,” he said.
Abdulrasid Batunan, the most senior of the military training graduates, wants a lasting peace in his homeland. A MILF fighter from an early age, Batunan said he now wanted to forget the bitter memories of battle and hoped for peace and development in the Bangsamoro region.
Norsi Gilam, 30, the wife of an ex-BIAF member, said she felt relieved that her husband, Manjorsa, no longer fought against government troops. “I’m happy because he can now come home to us. Now I can have peace of mind,” she said.
Army Brig. Gen. Cesar De Mesa said the ceremony was proof that the Philippines had a working peace process.