Renewed push for peace in Philippines as more fighters look to lay down arms

Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim with Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr, chief of staff the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit to their camp in 2018. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)
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Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim with Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr, chief of staff the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit to their camp in 2018. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader casts his vote for the first time in a historic referendum seeking to ratify a law that gives more autonomy to the Philippines’ Muslim minority on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)
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The Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader casts his vote for the first time in a historic referendum seeking to ratify a law that gives more autonomy to the Philippines’ Muslim minority on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)
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Updated 30 January 2021

Renewed push for peace in Philippines as more fighters look to lay down arms

Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim with Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr, chief of staff the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit to their camp in 2018. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)
  • Program facing hurdles as the government struggles to fulfil financial pledges to militants in Bangsamoro region, CM Murad says

MANILA: Hundreds of local militants from Daesh-inspired groups in the southern Philippines are considering giving up their weapons to live everyday lives, even as the government continues to register gains in its anti-terror programs, Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), said on Friday.

“We are trying to open dialogue with them, convincing them to join us, the government,” Murad told reporters at the annual forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

Since its inception two years ago, the BARMM government has overseen the decommissioning of thousands of fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

The BIAF is the military wing of the MILF, once the largest Muslim insurgent group in the Philippines, which Murad also heads.

“Our target is... we will be decommissioning at least 40,000 combatants. This will be divided into three phases – the first 30 percent, a second 35 percent and a third 35 percent. We have completed the 30 percent, which is the first phase of 12,000 (former BIAF members). Plus there was an initial batch during the past administration where we already started a symbolic decommissioning of 1,500 (MILF fighters),” Murad said.

For progress in the initiative, Murad said the BARMM government had started talks with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to drop their weapons and return to normalcy.




The Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader casts his vote for the first time in a historic referendum seeking to ratify a law that gives more autonomy to the Philippines’ Muslim minority on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Ellie Aben/AN)

In 2014, both the BIFF and the ASG, the most violent militant organization in Mindanao, pledged allegiance to Daesh. Neither the BIFF nor the ASG is led by one leader, and they have splintered into several factions.

The BIFF parted ways with the MILF, which now leads the interim Bangsamoro government, during former President Gloria Macapagal’s rule when the peace process was halted for some time.

The BIFF is divided into three factions, with Murad saying that two of its groups were “open to the dialogue”.

He said that more than 900 of its members would like to join the Bangsamoro government’s decommissioning process.

During BARMM’s second anniversary celebrations last week, Murad said that besides the BIFF, a few ASG members had also “manifested their possible joining in the parliament and the decommissioning process.”

He, however, did not divulge any other details during the forum but added that the decommissioning of the MILF combatants was being delayed as the government had yet to deliver on its promise to extend 1 million pesos ($21,000) in socio-economic packages for each of the 13,500 decommissioned combatants. They had returned to civilian life in the first phase of the initiative.

The package includes housing amenities, scholarships for their children, and a few other economic projects.

“So far they have received only P100,000 each,” Murad said, adding that they had raised the issue with the national government to prevent further frustration among ex-MILF fighters which might cause them to return to militancy.

Officials at the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

Murad said that the “real challenge” was sourcing the program’s funds.

“I think the challenge with the national government is there is no particular budget for that 1 million pesos each. Their plan is they will take it out from the programs of the different departments. So now that is the challenge because it takes time before the departments can extend the necessary assistance to the (first batch of former) combatants,” he said.

“Unless we can at least complete this assistance, then we cannot go on with the second phase of the decommissioning. And the second phase is scheduled already for this time,” Murad continued.

The decommissioning of the former BIAF members is part of the normalization track of the MILF-Government of the Philippines peace agreement. It is envisioned that the ex-fighters will be able to return to mainstream society, and the six government-acknowledged MILF camps and communities will be transformed into peaceful communities.

Several Bangsamoro officials have been lobbying for a three-year extension for the Bangsamoro transition government to meet their targets, citing the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Murad said that the call for an extension was “not about politics or political power.”

“We see that we need this extension to complete the implementation of the agreement,” he said.


Taiwan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination proof for entertainment venues

Taiwan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination proof for entertainment venues
Updated 16 sec ago

Taiwan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination proof for entertainment venues

Taiwan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination proof for entertainment venues
TAIPEI: Taiwan will mandate the use of passes that provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination for entry into entertainment venues, the government said on Thursday, as it seeks to reduce infection risks while tackling a small rise in domestic omicron cases.
The Central Epidemic Command Center said that from Friday entry into venues including bars and night clubs would require proof of full vaccination, either by showing a physical vaccine card or a new digital card.
The center said the move was needed to minimize the risk of community transmission as Taiwan deals with a small number of domestic infections of the omicron variant.
More than 70 percent of people in Taiwan have received two vaccine doses and booster shots are currently being rolled out, though only around 10 percent of residents have had their third shot so far.
Taiwan has kept the pandemic well under control thanks to strict border measures enacted early on and a highly efficient tracing system.
It has reported 18,041 cases to date out of a population of 23.5 million.

Beijing says it warned away US warship in South China Sea

Beijing says it warned away US warship in South China Sea
Updated 39 min 11 sec ago

Beijing says it warned away US warship in South China Sea

Beijing says it warned away US warship in South China Sea
  • China: USS Benfold ‘illegally’ sailed into Chinese territorial waters without permission
  • South China Sea one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the US

BEIJING: Chinese forces followed and warned away a US warship which entered waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the country’s military said on Thursday, in the latest uptick in tensions in the disputed waterway.
The Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army said the USS Benfold “illegally” sailed into Chinese territorial waters without permission, violating the country’s sovereignty, and that Chinese naval and air forces tracked the ship.
“We solemnly demand that the US side immediately stop such provocative actions, otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events,” it added.
The US Navy said the Benfold “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Island, consistent with international law.”
“At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea,” 7th Fleet spokesman Mark Langford said.
The United States frequently carries out what it calls freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims.
China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the waters, which are crossed by vital shipping lanes and also contain gas fields and rich fishing grounds.
The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the United States, with Washington rejecting what it calls unlawful territorial claims by Beijing.
China claims vast swaths of the South China Sea. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have overlapping claims.


New Zealand says it won’t use lockdowns when omicron spreads

New Zealand says it won’t use lockdowns when omicron spreads
Updated 20 January 2022

New Zealand says it won’t use lockdowns when omicron spreads

New Zealand says it won’t use lockdowns when omicron spreads
  • About 93 percent of New Zealanders aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated
  • New Zealand has managed to contain the spread of the delta variant, with an average of about 20 new cases each day

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand is among the few remaining countries to have avoided any outbreaks of the omicron variant — but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday an outbreak was inevitable and the nation would tighten restrictions as soon as one was detected.
But she also said that New Zealand would not impose the lockdowns that it has used previously, including for the delta variant.
“This stage of the pandemic is different to what we have dealt with before. omicron is more transmissible,” Ardern said. “That is going to make it harder to keep it out, but it will also make it more challenging to control once it arrives. But just like before, when COVID changes, we change.”
Ardern said that within 24 to 48 hours of omicron being detected in the community, the nation would move into its “red” setting. That would allow businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but would require schoolchildren to wear masks and limit crowds to 100 people.
Currently most of New Zealand is at the “orange” setting, which requires some mask wearing and proof of vaccination but doesn’t limit crowd sizes.
About 93 percent of New Zealanders aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated and 52 percent have had a booster shot. The country has just begun vaccinating children aged between 5 and 11.
New Zealand has managed to contain the spread of the delta variant, with an average of about 20 new cases each day. But it has seen an increasing number of people arriving into the country and going into mandatory quarantine who are infected with omicron.
That has put strain on the quarantine system and prompted the government to limit access for returning citizens while it decides what to do about reopening its borders, angering many people who want to return to New Zealand.
Opposition leader Christopher Luxon said Ardern had planned poorly for omicron and had managed to secure into the country less than one rapid COVID-19 test per person.
“That is a stunning indictment on the government’s lazy lack of planning,” he said.
Ardern said the most important thing that people could do was to get a booster shot, which would reduce the severity of an omicron infection and allow most people to recover at home rather than needing hospital care.


Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February
Updated 20 January 2022

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February
  • All arrivals must take a COVID-19 test on arrival and five days later
BANGKOK: Thailand will resume its ‘Test & Go’ quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals starting on Feb 1, the country’s coronavirus taskforce said on Thursday.
All arrivals must take a COVID-19 test on arrival and five days later, spokesperson Taweesin Wisanuyothin said at briefing, during which additional “Sandbox” areas were announced, a similar scheme to revive its battered tourism sector, where visitors must stay for one week in a designated location.

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
Updated 20 January 2022

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
  • The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month

HONG KONG: Hong Kong will suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from January 24, the Education Bureau said on Thursday, because of a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools in the Chinese-ruled territory.
The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month, and imposed curbs, such as a ban on restaurant dining after 6 p.m. and the closure of venues such as gyms, cinemas and beauty salons.