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.
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.