Philippine News - Malacañang Photo Bureau

Muslim deal signed: will the guns now go away?

“From this shared security, we shall enhance the era of prosperity that is drawing upon our region”.
–– Pres. Benigno C. Aquino III, 27 March 2014

Philippine News, Malacañang, Manila – The government has recently signed with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) what Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago fears to be an ‘illegal document that creates an independent sub-state in the southern Philippines’.

The deal requires the Philippine legislature to pass a new ‘Bangsamoro Law’ that will allow the Muslim community to effectively govern themselves in definite parts of Mindanao.

The peace framework requires all rebels of the greater MILF faction to ‘decommission’ their arms and embrace a peaceful manner of existence so that development efforts can be pursued as an alternative to the protracted war in the south.

The military establishment was quick to clarify that the peace deal brokered in Malaysia in no way automatically mean that full cessation of hostilities have finally been gained. “There is a lot of groundwork to be covered”, says Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin who pointed out that crucial to the peace accord would be the sincerity of the MILF to follow the various ‘stages’ described in the deal necessary to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao.

The full political dexterity of the Aquino administration would now be summoned as the Bangsamoro law goes through the delicate plenary of both House of Representatives and the Senate.

The peace accord is a significant step towards the dismantling of not only the MILF armed organization but those of private armies that are common in Mindanao. The Department of National Defense is keen on ending the presence of armed groups in the area because of the cost of forces and equipment necessary to maintain its peace.

The military seeks to reduce its forces in the region under the accord’s program for normalisation, with the maintenance of peace and order to be taken over by a civilian police force composed of Bangsamoro elements. AFP security forces can then be repositioned to take assignments related to the protection of the country’s territorial sovereignty against external threats.

The deal is a positive and an ambitious high point in the relationship between Mindanao and Manila. Though it will ‘not be a walk in the park’ for those who will ultimately become responsible for the minute details necessary to avoid misunderstanding between government’s national security intentions and the future of supposed 11,000 MILF armed combatants.

MILF leader and chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal has warned that the decommissioning of MILF firearms will be an emotional matter for MILF fighters. The MILF then will cease to exist as an armed group and start positioning itself as a social movement, said Iqbal.

Meanwhile, a lot is expected from the MILF itself as its members maintain close family ties with private armies and other armed groups like the MNLF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. This is where the implementation of the peace deal becomes tricky. Under the new accord, the MILF and the Philippine military will cooperate and act jointly to control not only loose firearms and private armies but to keep the ceasefire in Mindanao.

The BIFF is a breakaway group of the MILF and is still seen together with the MNLF as a significant threat to the peace process. For most observers in Mindanao, including experienced military operatives stationed there, the BIFF question is something the MILF will have to deal with squarely in order for the peace accord to gain proper momentum on the ground and for development to move forward in all aspects of the soon to be enacted Bangsamoro law.

But there is a genuine reason to celebrate the signing of this much awaited deal owing to the changing of relations between military and MILF elements in the region. “There is a marked improvement in the way Bangsamoro members are behaving in relation to peace efforts, something that was uncommon a few years back”, said Col. Ramon Zagala, military spokesman. “Part of the change can be attributed to how Filipino soldiers have learned to respect Muslim culture”, he added.

At the end of the day, the positive leaf growing from the peace that has been allowed to grow out of the new peace deal must not be taken lightly. Col. Zagala was correct to emphasize that the problems of insurgency are multi-faceted. There are economic, political, religious, and legislative issues that need to be answered.