A farewell to arms in the Philippines’ Mindanao

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Duterte salutes and greets former members of the MILF at their passing out ceremony. Malacañang photo
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The President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte inspects the decommissioned firearms from former combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or the MILF, at the Old Provincial Capitol Compound in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. (Malacañang photo)
Updated 18 September 2019

A farewell to arms in the Philippines’ Mindanao

  • Disbanding of MILF commenced with decommissioning of 1,060 fighters on Sept 7
  • Retiring combatants say they look forward to peace and normal life with family

MINDANAO: “Our time on the battlefield is over.” With these words, Al-Haj Ibrahim Murad, interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), launched the decommissioning of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and weaponry. 

The ceremony, held earlier this month, was witnessed by the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte. During the event, 1,060 MILF combatants, wearing blue shirts with the word “decommissioned” printed on the back, were presented to Murad — the chief executive of the Bangsamoro regional government — along with 960 surrendered firearms and heavy weapons.

It was the first step toward retiring members of the MILF’s 40,000-strong Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), who can now return to civilian life. 

Murad is also chair of the MILF, which used to be the largest Muslim rebel group in the country.

Each decommissioned combatant will receive from the government a socioeconomic assistance package worth an estimated 1 million pesos ($19,230). 

This includes 100,000 pesos in cash, health benefits, scholarships for their children, housing and livelihood projects.

For almost half a century, the MILF had waged a war against the government with the goal of winning independence for the country’s Muslim minority.

After years of negotiations, the MILF signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the government in 2014 to end the protracted war on the island of Mindanao that has claimed about 120,000 lives.

In 2018, Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating the BARMM. And in January this year, people in the predominantly Muslim area of the southern Philippines returned an overwhelming “yes” in a referendum seeking to ratify the law, which will give them self-rule.

Following the creation of the new Bangsamoro regional government, Duterte approved in March an executive order that would pave the way to decommissioning MILF fighters as part of the normalization track of the 2014 peace deal.

After months of preparations, MILF combatants began handing over their weapons last week to independent foreign monitors, in a process overseen by the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB).

This year, at least 30 percent of MILF fighters (12,000) will be demobilized and their weapons put beyond use. Another 35 percent will go through the same process next year, and the remainder by 2022.

Last month, more than 200 BIAF members completed a month-long military training program, a requirement for them to become part of the composite Joint Peace and Security Teams (JPST), which will secure MILF communities and camps as their comrades begin to demobilize. The JPST also includes military and police contingents.

Having finished their training, the former combatants are now also part of the army with the rank of reservist, and will help in the fight against terrorism and illegal drugs in the region.

MILF leaders and the military say not many years ago, it was unimaginable that BIAF members would be in an army camp to undertake military training with soldiers.

Abdulrasid Batunan, the most senior among the first batch of BIAF members to train with the army, said he looks forward to a lasting peace in their homeland.

An MILF fighter from an early age, Batunan said he now wants to forget the bitter memories of the battles he went through, and hopes for peace and development to replace conflict in the Bangsamoro region. He said he is happy that he can now lead a normal life and spend time with his family.

“I became a combatant in 1980. I’ve taken part in major battles against government troops. I did it because we were fighting for our rights as Muslims, for our independence, but the time has come to stop the war,” he told Arab News.

“The gun has been my instrument for most of my life, which I spent fighting in the jungles together with my comrades. It was hard. There are many things that I don’t even want to think about now.”

Another BIAF member, who declined to be identified, said they were happy to finish their training. 

“It’s not the ultimate end. We have to do good in our task, not only in securing Bangsamoro but for the benefit of the communities here in Mindanao,” he said.

Mujahid Abdullah, 36, who also trained with the army to become a part of the JPST, said the experience was “something he never imagined would happen, being a combatant who fought tooth and nail against government forces.”

The former rebel said he “was amazed by the turn of events,” adding that they will now be working alongside the same government forces that were his fierce adversaries. “I hope this peace will continue and there will no longer be war,” he said.

Baila Musa and Manjorsa Gilman, both married to combatants, said the demobilization has come as a big relief, lifting their hopes for lasting peace in their land. 

The women said they were happy their families would be complete, with their husbands will no longer fighting in the jungles.

Saida Limgas, 66, a decommissioned combatant, said she started fighting at the age of 16 “for the cause of Allah.” She expressed hope that the government will make good on its promise of benefits.

In his message marking the decommissioning process, Murad said: “The combatants who are to be decommissioned today … aren’t ordinary individuals. They’re … individuals whose lives were drastically affected.”

He added: “These are 1,060 stories of love, faith and sacrifice for the sake of Allah, and for the sake of the aspirations of every Bangsamoro.”

Murad conceded, during the Sept. 7 ceremony, that the demobilization process will be a challenge for the combatants as they make the transition to civilian life.

“For many years, our training has been grounded on the armed struggle. But now our brave combatants will face a significantly different form of struggle to transform to civilian lives and embrace a new mindset,” he said.

“Instead of going to the field for conflict, we’ll now go to the field to harvest our crops. Instead of carrying firearms, we’ll now carry tools for work and education. Instead of thinking about a possible encounter the next day, we’ll think of opportunities that await us, our children and those who’ll follow.”

Murad said the decommissioning of MILF combatants does not mean they have given up on what they had been fighting for.

“Let me reiterate that we’re not surrendering,” he said, adding that the decommissioning process simply demonstrates “our sincere and full commitment to fulfilling part of the peace agreement.” 


Can Muslims swing UK vote?

Updated 07 December 2019

Can Muslims swing UK vote?

  • They may be a minority, but British Muslim voters could have a major impact at the ballot box, a new report suggests
  • The Muslim Council of Britain has identified 18 constituencies in which Muslim voters could have a high impact

LONDON: With Islamophobia on the rise in the UK, and uncertainty surrounding Brexit and its implications, British Muslims could have a significant impact on the result of the Dec. 9 general election simply by exercising their right to vote.

Despite the UK’s Muslim population standing at 5 percent, there are 31 marginal seats in which Muslim voters could have a “high” or “medium” impact, according to a list published by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

The council has identified 18 constituencies in which Muslim voters may have a high impact, and 13 in which they could have a medium impact.

Top of the list for high-impact areas are Kensington, Dudley North and Richmond Park.

High-impact seats are those where the current margin of victory is small and the proportion of Muslim voters is significant compared to the margin of victory.

In Kensington, Labour candidate Emma Dent Coad won her seat in 2017 by a margin of 20 votes.

The number of Muslims of voting age in this constituency, estimated at 5,431, is 272 times this margin.

A British Muslim woman leaves a polling station after voting in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, UK, in a previous election. (Shutterstock)

In Dudley North and Richmond Park, the Muslim electorate — which stands at 4 percent of voting-age constituents — was over 70 times the victory margin in both constituencies, which was 22 and 45 votes, respectively. Muslims are, therefore, in a position to make a difference in high-impact seats such as these.

The MCB is the UK’s largest and most diverse Muslim umbrella organization, with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organizations, mosques, charities and schools.

It does not endorse any political party or prospective parliamentary candidate.

Ahead of the last general election, the MCB identified 16 high- and 23 medium-impact seats where it thought Muslims could make a difference.

“Where we highlighted that these seats had the potential for Muslims to have a huge impact if they voted a particular way, we did see that actually come to fruition,” the MCB’s Public Affairs Manager Zainab Gulamali said.

In the 16 constituencies where the MCB thought Muslims could have a high impact, every one of these seats went on to be held by the Labour Party.

Eleven of these were previously Labour seats, but it increased its majority, and five were previously Conservative seats.

Of the 23 medium-impact constituencies, 16 seats in which Labour was the incumbent saw an increase in its majority, with the exception of Bolton North East.

Of the seven previously Conservative seats, five were retained with a smaller majority, one seat was gained by the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives increased their majority in the final seat.

The MCB’s election policy platform report said Muslims “do not all affiliate with one particular political party. Muslims vote for different reasons like all voters.”

It added that the British government’s own analysis confirms that “minorities are not a bloc vote that automatically supports Labour irrespective of Labour’s performance.”

Gulamali said: “This election is going to be a really interesting one for Muslims and non-Muslims, and the fact that the UK is going through unprecedented change means that it’s important for everyone to get out and vote.”

She added: “The choices that people will make in this election will be really crucial. We know that Muslims choose to vote for whoever they vote for based on a number of concerns, especially as Islamophobia is so prevalent in particular political parties.

“We think that would be something that many Muslims consider when casting their vote.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently apologized for the “hurt and offence” caused by instances of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

He said that an inquiry into “every manner of prejudice and discrimination” in his party would begin by Christmas.

Former party Chairwoman Baroness Warsi — the first Muslim woman to be part of a British Cabinet, who has been calling for an inquiry into Islamophobia within the party — said the apology was “a good start.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologized for the ‘hurt and offence’ caused by instances of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party.  (AFP)

Johnson’s apology came as Flora Scarabello, who was running as the Conservative candidate for Glasgow Central, was suspended by the party over “alleged use of anti-Muslim language.”

A party spokesman said: “There is no place in the Scottish Conservatives for anti-Muslim language, or any other form of racial or religious discrimination.”

Johnson has remained silent about his own comments on Muslim women. Writing in his Daily Telegraph column in August 2018, he said Muslim women wearing the niqab “look like letter boxes” or bank robbers.

The MCB report said there “has been a disturbing and dangerous rise in Islamophobic incidents and support of anti-Muslim sentiments within political parties,” and urged them to investigate “issues of Islamophobia within their parties.”

Gulamali said: “Before the general election, we surveyed over 500 of our affiliates and other British Muslims, and we found that tackling Islamophobia was a No. 1 priority the Muslims that we spoke to had for political parties.”

But “Muslims don’t just care about Islamophobia and Muslim issues. They also care about all the other issues that everyone else cares about,” she added.

These include Brexit. A recent MCB survey of its affiliates and wider Muslim communities found that 77 percent of participants back remaining in the EU. The same percentage of participants support a second referendum on Brexit.

“Muslims are overwhelmingly poorer than mainstream society — 46 percent of the Muslim population resides in the 10 percent most deprived local authority districts in England,” Gulamali said.

“We know that Brexit is likely to hit people in low socioeconomic groups more than people who are well off. So Muslims will be disadvantaged by Brexit in that way.”

Muslim voters also care about issues such as the privatization of the National Health Service, tackling knife crime, unemployment and the cost of living.

Boris Johnson's apology was described as ‘a good start’ by Baroness Warsi, right, the party’s former chairwoman. (AFP)

The MCB held its first national Muslim voter registration day on Nov. 22, when it encouraged political participation among Muslims, 300,000 of whom registered to vote that day.

The East London Mosque’s London’s Muslim Centre took part in the MCB’s voter registration drive.

Dilowar Khan, its director, said by taking part in the initiative, “we hope to have played our part in increasing awareness for our congregants of their democratic right to vote and cause change.”

He added: “Overall, we hope this increased political participation by the Muslim community will help steer our country toward a better society.”

Khan said: “It’s only through engagement that we can identify and voice key issues affecting Muslim communities.”

He added: “It’s important that everyone realizes their potential to cause change via political participation.

“Muslims make up a significant minority in the UK, and it’s of utmost importance that our concerns are validated and that our politicians address these issues,” Khan said.