MANILA: A center aimed at helping former militants reintegrate into the community is being built in the southern Philippines as part of government efforts to sustain peace in one of Southeast Asia’s most conflict-torn regions, officials said on Monday.
Bangsamoro, a region covering predominantly Muslim areas of Mindanao, has undergone a peace process for nearly a decade since the government struck a permanent cease-fire agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after almost four decades of conflict.
As part of the peace process, the region’s inhabitants voted for greater autonomy in a referendum held in 2019. This followed the months’-long battle in Mindanao’s Marawi City in 2017 between the Philippine army and pro-Daesh militants, including members of the Abu Sayyaf Group.
The threat from ASG has declined since then; the Philippine military said in April that its operations had decreased the risk from militants affiliated with Daesh. As more ASG members surrender to the military, the government in Bangsamoro is aiming to help them rejoin society.
“This facility is part of the commitment we’ve made to the Western Mindanao Command and the local government . . . as we join them in rebuilding the lives of (the former) ASG members,” Naguib Sinarimbo, who heads the department responsible for local governance in Bangsamoro, said in a statement.
The $469,000 facility will be located in Barangay Langhub in the southwestern Sulu province, which was a stronghold of ASG.
Once it is established, the center will conduct programs to ensure that former militants “will become productive citizens as they return to the community.”
The regional military spokesperson, Col. Alaric Delos Santos, stressed the importance of the center “for the deradicalization of the former ASG members.”
“We all know that inside the ASG, what they were taught was an extremist point of view on Islam. So this time, they will go through the process and get a proper study and understanding of Islam. We will also be able to see their potential to determine the kind of livelihood that should be provided to each of them,” Delos Santos told Arab News.
Since 2017, more than 860 members of the ASG have surrendered to the military in Sulu, according to official data. More than half will join the first batch of programs run at the center, Delos Santos said.
The center, according to security expert Rikard Jalkebro, is essential to sustain peace in Sulu.
“It’s something that has to be done otherwise you can’t really have lasting peace or any kind of sustainable peace situation in Sulu,” Jalkebro told Arab News.
To build trust between former fighters and the local community, Jalkebro said that it was important “to integrate these people into society” by teaching them skills and providing vocational training, adding that these processes take time.
“It’s very difficult, and it’s very easy for them to simply slip back into the old ways.”