Moro rebels to lay down limited weapons in symbolic gesture

MILF says war not an option, but legislation finalizing autonomy in Mindanao still stalled
Moro rebels to lay down limited weapons in symbolic gesture

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front's peace panel chief, Mohagher Iqbal (Photo by Joe Torres)

The major Islamic rebel group in the troubled Mindanao region of the Philippines has announced it will start decommissioning weapons and combatants next week.

The move comes as a symbolic gesture amid a frequently stalled peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who inked a tentative peace agreement last year.

"The MILF will see to it that we will comply with our obligations," Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief peace negotiator, said during a press conference in Manila on Thursday.

Iqbal described the decommissioning process as "very difficult," adding that the MILF has committed to "undertake the ultimate sacrifice”.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF, confirmed the announcement. "We are scheduled to begin the decommissioning process on June 16," she said.

Ferrer said the process would start with a "ceremonial turnover" of 75 weapons. At least 145 members of the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, will also be decommissioned. The MILF has not disclosed the current size of its forces, but the Philippine military last year estimated there were at least 10,000 fighters.

Teresita Quintos Deles, adviser to President Benigno Aquino on the peace process, said the decommissioning process would be the first in the country's history.

"Never has an armed organization that has been fighting with the government … voluntarily turn over weapons," Deles said.

A 1990s peace deal between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front, the MILF’s precursor, only integrated combatants to the Philippine armed forces and the police.

A key part of implementing the 2014 peace agreement in Mindanao hinges on the passage of a political settlement that would expand autonomy in a new region to be known as Bangsamoro.

But debate over the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has proved divisive in the Philippine Congress, particularly in the wake of a bungled January 2015 anti-terror raid that resulted in the deaths of 67 people, including 47 elite police officers and 18 members of the MILF.

The botched operation initially stalled deliberations in Congress. On Thursday, Congress adjourned without passing the proposed law after more than one-third of legislators challenged aspects of the draft legislation.

President Aquino vowed last year to pass the BBL before his final State of the Nation Address scheduled for next month. House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr has said that the law will be passed before Aquino ends his term in 2016.

Based on reports and statements issued by civil society groups in Mindanao, many Muslim Filipinos are supportive of the BBL and the proposed autonomous region, which they see as an opportunity for the southern Philippines and its people to fast-track development after years of conflict.

But a survey done by pollster Pulse Asia in March suggested that 62 percent of the overall population in Mindanao is opposed to passing the proposed law.

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Despite the uncertainty, officials with the MILF have vowed to continue to pursue peace, even if Congress fails to pass the law.

“War is not an option to the MILF,” the group said in a statement Monday.

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