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How to disarm Philippine rebels

Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) combatants, the armed wing of the Philippine Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), near Camp Salahuddin, a fishing village in the Tarragona district of Davao Oriental province on the Philippine island of Mindanao tha Guy Oliver/IRIN
What will it take for these MILF fighters to put down their arms?
The Philippine government and Muslim rebels in Mindanao are inching forward in peace negotiations aimed at ending a long-running insurgency, but the toughest negotiations are likely to centre on how to disarm thousands of insurgents, officials and analysts say.

After months of stagnating peace talks, both sides agreed on a wealth-sharing deal in July that will give the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) powers of taxation, as well as a “profitable” share of mineral deposits by 2016 in a proposed autonomous region MILF would govern.

The deal gives MILF 75 percent of all the earnings derived from metallic mineral exploitation, half of all natural gas and oil revenues and the right to levy taxes on businesses operating in the area. It can also receive funding directly from donors, rather than going through the central government.

Presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles said the government wanted "clear deliverables", in terms of weaponry, from MILF, which has waged an insurgency since the 1970s that has left tens of thousands dead and large parts of the south mired in poverty.

She said a "decommissioning body" was to be appointed by both sides to determine what happens to MILF's weapons, which include machine guns, assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, small firearms and anti-tank weapons and mortars.

According to the peace process timeline, MILF will cease as a rebel force and reform itself into a political group that will take the reins of the proposed Bangsomoro autonomous region by 2016 when President Benigno Aquino ends his six-year term.

"There are difficult decisions to be made here," Deles said. "You don't want this normalization process to be a never-ending target, where they can still recruit while in the process of decommissioning."

Chief peace negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the government must first conduct an inventory of MILF weaponry, register all fighters and determine how to entice them to lay down their arms - a difficult process considering that most of them were reared in combat and have had their weapons since they were young. With so much distrust sowed through years of opposition, many of the fighters fear any weapons surrendered could be used against them.

The IRA model

Among the models under consideration is the Irish model, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) signed a peace deal in 1998 and agreed to stockpile their weapons in a warehouse before their destruction, she said.

Two decommissioning deadlines passed before the IRA agreed in 2001 on a method to destroy its arsenal, which was hailed by leaders then as “historic” and a “breakthrough”. Four years later, an independent commission announced the Irish fighters’ entire arsenal had been destroyed.

But back in the Philippines, security analyst Ed Quitoriano, a former ranking Filipino Communist guerrilla who has worked with foreign governments to assess arms proliferation in southern Mindanao, said asking MILF to disarm will be easier said than done.

He argues that national law allows for very "liberal gun ownership" on the premise that citizens have the right to defend their homes and personal welfare. Anyone who is 18 or older can legally own guns, subject to strict screening.

"Why would the MILF disarm when the government says taxpayers and corporations can arm themselves beyond their need?" Quitoriano asked.

Corporations in the south, as well as political warlords, are known to employ private armies, leading to a proliferation of firearms across the Catholic nation, where Muslims are a minority.

"There is no workable model for the MILF, I think - neither Nepal nor Aceh," he said. "What may be possible is a symbolic disarming in exchange for something else."


Under a 2006 peace deal between Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government, all rebel weapons were to be turned over and stored in containers under UN supervision.

In exchange, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) received legal recognition, including the right to participate in elections. It was also agreed that the armed wing of the party - the People’s Liberation Army - would be integrated into the Nepal Army, something yet to be completed in 2013. Some 9,500 fighters are eligible for army integration, of which the government has agreed to accept 6,500.

In 2012 Nepal’s national army took control of seven main rebel cantonments (and some 20 satellite ones), along with some 3,500 weapons in sealed containers.

But according to a May 2013 publication from the Geneva-based independent research project, Small Arms Survey, based on other disarmament experiences, and given the number of Maoist fighters, there may be some 6,000 arms that were never submitted to UN control.


In the Indonesian province of Aceh, following almost 30 years of struggle with the central government, separatists with the Free Aceh Movement (local acronym GAM) signed in 2005 the Helsinki Agreement, which committed the rebels to turn over all arms, explosives and ammunition to a European Union (EU)-supported monitoring mission.

When asked why fighters disarmed there with little struggle or infighting, Kamaruddin Abubakar, the former number two leader of the rebellion, told IRIN: “We trusted our leaders. When we were told to put down our weapons, we did so. We were optimistic about the deal given the presence of EU monitors.”

The EU supported 300 peace monitors in Aceh whose mission expired following local elections held in December 2006.

The Philippines government, along with Sri Lanka’s and Thailand’s, recently sent delegations to Aceh to learn how its peace process, especially disarmament, unfolded, said Irwansyah (one name only), founder of a new political party in Aceh who was a rebel commander and representative in the EU monitoring mission.

“It was hard to put down our arms because we feared being arrested,” said Irwansyah. “But because of international support, we did so despite our fears.” He told IRIN the peace deal has been militarily successful, even though there are democratic shortcomings.

Reintegration concerns

In the Philippines, Quitoriano said MILF - because of its long years of armed struggle - has its enemies, with previous governments allowing political clans to arm themselves as an additional proxy force for the military against MILF.

There is also the question of what to do with MILF guerrillas who disarm. Ferrer said one solution is to absorb qualified members into a police force that will take over security of the autonomous region, although the vast majority of fighters never received formal schooling.

"The MILF will not commit to disarming its community-based armed supporters as well. That side has to be on the persuasion of government," Quitoriano said. "What the MILF wants is not to disarm, but to take over security functions in the new territory."

MILF enjoys large support in areas where it holds sway, especially from Muslim leaders in remote communities where the rebel movement has taken over the state function of fighting criminal elements due to lack of police.

MILF and its parent group the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from which it broke away in 1978, has waged a rebellion for the past four decades demanding increased autonomy, which has left tens of thousands dead and thwarted efforts to develop mineral-rich Mindanao where many Muslims claim swathes of land as part of as their "ancestral domain".

MNLF signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, and an autonomous region was created for it to govern. But despite millions of dollars in development aid, the autonomy was deemed a "failed experiment" in President Aquino's own words; many areas remain among the poorest nationwide.

Some MNLF forces were absorbed into the armed forces, but were poorly trained and ill-equipped for the rigours of a strictly regulated fighting force. Those who were left behind did not surrender their weapons and went back to the jungle or hinterland where they regrouped or joined smaller bandit groups.

Aquino's government last year signed a "framework agreement" with MILF calling for the establishment of a new political territory for itself within three years, replacing the region created earlier for the MNLF.

MILF vice-chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar told IRIN the next round of negotiations scheduled for August may be tougher than previous ones, and he expected the government to come up with “creative” offers on how to solve the question of normalization.

"We hate the word surrender. We can't just disarm and give up our weapons. That will expose us to threats. We will only lay down our arms if clearly we see there is no more need to fight," he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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