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Asia

Weapons handover reflects Philippine rebels' 'commitment to negotiations'

In a bid to revive a stalled peace process, the Philippines' largest rebel group retired nearly 150 guerrillas and handed over 75 firearms. But how significant is this symbolic gesture? DW speaks to analyst Steven Rood.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited the headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the island of Mindanao on Tuesday, June 16, to witness the weapons handover and spur parliament to pass a delayed bill designed to establish a more powerful autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the Catholic-majority nation.

The handover of assault weapons, including mortar and rocket launchers, is a result of an accord signed between the rebels and the government in March 2014 and is being seen as a concrete action by the MILF to abandon a decades-old insurgency that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and led to the displacement of millions. Moreover, the 145 guerrillas retired on Tuesday will return to civilian life and are set to receive assistance from the government.

The resource-rich southern island of Mindanao is home to the biggest and most relevant Muslim minority in the Philippine archipelago - the indigenous Moro people. But the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) supported by President Aquino is now stuck in the parliament.

The Philippine Congress suspended work on the BBL following the killing of 44 police commandos in January. The officers were killed when their anti-terror operation, aimed at capturing or killing a top Islamist militant, took a turn for the worse. It was the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory, prompting calls for retribution.

Steven Rood

Rood: 'The decommissioning of MILF forces is one aspect of a carefully constructed normalization process'

Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's country representative in the Philippines and a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team that oversees the implementation of the agreements, explains in a DW interview the significance of the rebels' gesture, the challenges facing the bill and why he believes the peace process will continue.

DW: The hand-over of 75 firearms for decommissioning seems like a symbolic gesture. What is the main reason behind this?

Steven Rood: The hand-over of 75 firearms, and the demobilization of 145 MILF fighters, is indeed a symbolic gesture – a symbol that the peace process will continue.

The decommissioning of MILF forces, putting their arms beyond use under the supervision of the Independent Decommissioning Body, is one aspect of a carefully constructed "normalization" process that includes other elements such as amnesties, socio-economic development, redeployment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, control of private armies, and the transformation of MILF camps into a peaceful community.

All of this is to go on in parallel with the political process of instituting a new Bangsamoro government in the region.

What do the MILF rebels expect to gain from this?

Aside from political capital generated by this gesture, the MILF is expecting that their communities will in the future be able to live a normal life. This means that threats from private armed groups must be alleviated, socio-economic assistance provided, and an opportunity to contest elections afforded.

Is opposition to the bill in the Philippine parliament only linked to the killing of the of 44 police commandos by MILF rebels in January or is there more to it?

There are a number of opponents of the bill who had made their opposition clear even before the misencounter – political opponents of President Aquino (of several stripes), those skeptical of the peaceful intentions of the MILF, and some with substantive reservations about the substance of the bill that had been agreed between the MILF and the president.

The January 25 incident gave greater opportunities for these opponents to raise their voices. And there were a number of legislators who had been previously neutral who began to wonder, and even some supporters changed their minds.

Why is Aquino pushing for the law to be passed soon?

President Aquino's family has a legacy of trying to resolve the Muslim separatist conflict over the years. His father, the assassinated Ninoy Aquino, went to Jeddah 35 years ago to discuss these matters with the original Moro National Liberation Front.

After the overthrow of President Marcos, Cory Aquino (against the wishes of her security advisors) went to the island of Sulu to meet MNLF Founding Chair Nur Misuari, in an attempt to move the peace process forward. So it is not surprising that President Benigno Aquino would want to leave a legacy of an implemented agreement.

In addition, the Philippines is a very presidential system - when presidents change (as they must under a one-term limit) many things in Philippine politics change. President Aquino has always instructed his negotiators to only promise what they are certain can be implemented, and he can only be certain of implementation while he is in office (through June 2016).

Do you expect the bill to pass anytime soon?

Congress is in recess until late July, and there is still considerable process to be undergone. Thus, any bill would be passed later in the year, followed by a plebiscite. In that scenario, a challenge is when to hold the plebiscite. Originally envisioned to happen in early 2015, it would have given a Bangsamoro Transition Authority more than a year to prepare for the regular elections in May 2016 (synchronized with nationwide elections).

Should a plebiscite be held at the end of the year, there would be virtually no time for a transition before elections. Should the plebiscite be held in May 2016, along with other elections, then the transition would go beyond 2016 and into the political unknown.

Further uncertainty has been introduced by Senator Bongbong Marcos when he announced that he could not support the draft law as submitted to Congress, and that he would produce his own substitute bill in late July for consideration by the legislature. It is uncertain what that bill would contain, but it seems clear that it would be considerably different from the agreed-upon draft. Thus, the MILF might reject the substance of the law.

The MILF has made two things clear. First, from their viewpoint, no law is better than a bad law. In 2001, as part of attempts to implement a 1996 agreement with the MNLF, a revised autonomy law for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was passed over the objections of the MNLF. The ARMM is what has been characterized as a "failed experiment," one which the MILF does not want to repeat.

Benigno Aquino in Japan

'President Aquino's family has a legacy of trying to resolve the Muslim separatist conflict over the years'

Second, while further decommissioning depends, as agreed, on progress in the legislative process, the MILF has no intention of returning to war, to armed struggle, in the event that no law is passed. The MILF has reiterated its commitment to negotiations on the path to peace.

Given the killing of the 44 commandos just a few months ago, do you think the closure of the peace deal and the passing of the proposed law truly has the potential to restore peace in Mindanao?

The misencounter in January happened precisely because the processes outlined by the two sides were not followed. The police commandos did not coordinate their efforts with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, much less with the coordination mechanisms that have kept the peace over the past few years. The peace process is indeed quite robust – which is why fighting has virtually ceased (with the truly tragic exception of January).

This peace deal, if the political obstacles can be overcome, does have the potential to greatly contribute to peace and development in Mindanao. Government is ready, the international community is quite supportive, and the residents of the area are tired of war. The ball is in the Congress' court as they exercise their judgement on how best to pass a law implementing the peace.

Dr. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation's Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. You can follow him on Twitter @StevenRoodPH.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.