By Muslim Mirror Desk,
Muslim rebels in the mainly Catholic Philippines began handing over their guns to independent foreign monitors Saturday, as part of a peace treaty aimed at ending a decades-long separatist insurgency that has left about 150,000 people dead.
Just over a thousand guerrillas in the country’s restive south are turning in 940 weapons in a single day, in a graduated decommissioning process that aims to turn the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest rebel force, into a regular political party.
The fighters demobilised on Saturday represent a symbolic first step towards retiring what MILF says is a force of 40,000 fighters in the coming years.
“The war is over… I have no firearms left,” Paisal Abdullah Bagundang, 56, a self-described veteran of more than 100 firefights with government security forces since the 1970s, told AFP.
But the disarmament will take time to make an impact in a place where violence is an almost daily threat.
A bomb hidden in a parked motorcycle exploded near a public market in Isulan town early on Saturday, just hours before President Rodrigo Duterte was to witness the decommissioning ceremony some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away in Sultan Kudarat.
Police said eight people were injured in the attack that was later claimed by the Islamic State group, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
The decommissioning process “should not lead to expectations that it is going to result in a major deceleration in attacks”, said Francisco Lara, senior conflict adviser for Asia at watchdog group International Alert, noting that the general public in the region are also armed.
Acquiring a gun is “like buying fish in the market” in the southwestern provinces where most of the Philippines’ Muslim minority live, MILF commander Murad Ebrahim told reporters.
But “if people no longer feel they need firearms to survive then they will easily give them up”, added Ebrahim, who is also chief minister of the area that has its own regional parliament, but no separate police force or military.
About a third of MILF combatants and their weapons are to be retired over the coming eight months in the first phase of the decommissioning process.
Each retired fighter will receive a million pesos’ (about USD 19,000) worth of cash, scholarships, health insurance, and training to become productive civilians.
Rebels facing criminal cases related to the insurgency will be granted amnesty, while those qualified can train to become a soldier or a police officer, Duterte’s peace adviser Carlito Galvez told reporters.
“In order to have an enduring peace, we have to change the mindset of the people,” he said.
Suharto Abdullah, 36, told AFP he had joined the MILF when he was 10 years old, but now plans to sell rice.
“We are civilians now and won’t be carrying guns anymore,” Abdullah said.
Saida Limgas, who took up arms 50 years ago, warned the weapons handover will not prevent her and others from picking up guns again if poverty continues to hound their communities.
“The war will resume if the government reneges on what it promised us,” said the 66-year-old, who said she dropped out of a Catholic-run high school and became a rebel courier and cook in 1969 after soldiers killed several of her cousins.
The second phase of decommissioning involving the main bulk of fighters kicks in next year, with the rest to undergo the process before 2022.