Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines are parting with their arms after four decades of conflict, one of Asia’s longest running and deadly insurgencies that has taken over 120,000 lives.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has vowed to disarm 40,000 fighters and decommission 7,000 weapons by 2022 under the terms of the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), a peace deal the rebel group signed with the government in 2014.

But a disparity between the number of fighters and demobilized weapons has cast a shadow over the decommissioning process, viewed by many as one of the CAB’s cornerstones and a key to forging lasting peace.

By committing to hand over just 7,000 weapons, a large number of firearms will remain in the hands of the former rebels, guns they can reload and aim against the government if the peace deal’s implementation is bungled.

The MILF is a splinter of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which waged the original Muslim rebellion for self-determination in the south for several decades until it forged a peace agreement with the government in 1996. MILF fighters broke away from the MNLF over the terms of that peace deal.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members secure Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on the southern island of Mindanao on July 29, 2018.Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera
An MILF soldier at Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on the southern island of Mindanao on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

History, skeptics warn, could repeat itself with the current peace agreement. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) broke away from the MILF in 2010 and is now aligned with Islamic State.

Although deemed a terrorist outfit by the military, the BIFF could readily attract MILF members who become disgruntled with the government-MILF amity accord.

BIFF and MILF members are known to be related by blood or marriage, which could make them easier to lure to the BIFF’s side. Both the MILF and BIFF are based in Maguindanao, a poor Muslim dominated province on the southern island of Mindanao.

In February, the CAB established the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), an area of the country with the highest number of unregistered firearms, according to official estimates.

The MILF as an institution “owns only 7,000 weapons,” according to MILF chieftain Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, concurrently the BARMM’s interim chief minister. He says that an estimated 30% of the MILF’s members also own personal weapons, meaning that there are at least 12,000 arms in circulation among its members.

Gun culture is deeply ingrained in the psyche of ethnic Moros, a collective term for Mindanao’s Muslim Filipinos. In many Moro communities, it is common to see men openly displaying or moving around with their high-powered rifles or hand guns.

“I can separate from my wife, but not from my weapons,” Ebrahim said of the male Moros’ love affair with the firearms that they have used over the decades both for personal security or communal defense.

Of the 12,000 combatants identified for arms decommissioning during the process’s second phase, representing 30% of the MILF’s 40,000 total fighters, they must turn over at least 2,100 weapons by March 2020.

So far only 1,020 combatants have handed over 940 weapons, which could be seen on September 7 discarded in neat lines outside of a gymnasium at the abandoned provincial capitol building in Sultan Kudarat, where the MILF’s sprawling Camp Darapanan is situated.

A police official inspects over 900 weapons the MILF turned over to the Independent Decommissioning Body in Maguindanao province, September 7, 2019. Photo: Bong S Sarmiento

The disarmament’s first phase, designed as a ceremonial decommissioning, took place under then-president Benigno Aquino III in 2015, involving 145 MILF combatants and 75 weapons.

On September 7, current President Rodrigo Duterte arrived by helicopter to Maguindanao to inspect the mostly rusty weapons that included vintage machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and World War II-era Armalite and Garand rifles, among others.

The Independent Decommissioning Body, which is chaired by Turkey and comprised of Norway, Brunei, the Philippine government and MILF, will jointly put the weapons beyond use.

Duterte described the start of the bulk decommissioning as “a huge step towards our goal of achieving lasting peace for Mindanao.”

In a third phase, another 35% of the MILF’s forces, or 14,000 combatants, will partake in a similar handover next year, while the rest will relinquish their arms by 2022 – in time for the two sides’ exit agreement, according to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Duterte tried to soothe disarmed MILF fighters, most of them clad in light blue shirts with “decommissioned combatant” emblazoned on the back, by promising government assistance to ease their transition from combatants to civilians.

As part of the program, demobilized MILF fighters will each receive 100,000 pesos (US$2,000) cash, housing, education and livelihood assistance worth 1 million pesos (nearly US$20,000) for several years.

“Do not be sad that you turned over your firearms to the government because you are now with the government,” Duterte said in the local Tagalog language.

President Rodrigo Duterte R) and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (C) during the decommissioning of MILF combatants and weapons in Maguindanao, September 7, 2019. Photo: Bong S Sarmiento

Carlito Galvez Jr, Duterte’s chief peace adviser, acknowledged the wide disparity between the number of decommissioned MILF fighters and the number of firearms that they are scheduled to relinquish.

“I believe the (number of) firearms that they declared was very conservative because I saw by myself that most of the combatants have firearms,” he said in a media briefing. He told Asia Times he believes the MILF “owns as many as 15,000 weapons.”

Galvez, a retired military general who fought against MILF rebels, said that if the social and security conditions in the Bangsamoro region do not improve, MILF members who still have weapons will become increasingly reluctant to give up their arms.

“Our main aim for the ex-MILF combatants is to nurture or shepherd them until such time that they will have complete change in their social being,” he said.

MILF chieftain Ebrahim conceded the demobilization is a huge challenge for many former fighters.

“For many years our training has been grounded on the armed struggle,” Ebrahim said. “But now, our brave combatants will face a significantly different form of struggle to transform to civilian lives and embrace a new mindset.”

“That instead of going to the field for conflict, we will now go to the field to harvest our crops; that instead of carrying firearms, we will now carry tools for work and education; that instead of thinking about a possible encounter the next day, we can now think of opportunities that await us, our children, and those who will follow.”

He stressed the importance for the government to deliver promised socio-economic packages, including cash handouts, housing and scholarships, to encourage MILF members to disarm.

It is also vital to provide sustainable livelihoods, not just from the government but also the private sector, he added. Decades of war have stunted the region’s economic development and discouraged investment.

MILF members wear blue “decommissioned” shirts at a disarmament ceremony in Maguindanao province, September 7, 2019. Photo: Bong S Sarmiento

That could soon change, however. As part of the peace deal, the government has recognized at least six MILF camps that will be transformed into productive economic zones.

Russian and Swiss investors, meanwhile, have already expressed interest in converting vast tracts of land in and around MILF camps into banana plantations.

Ebrahim expressed confidence that putting his group’s weapons beyond use will, “bring normalization that will usher in a new era of peace and development in the new Bangsamoro region.”

He also believes that violent extremism, including radical ideology now being spread by Islamic State, will be pushed to the margins with the distribution of government assistance and new private sector-led job opportunities.

With disarmament now gaining momentum, Ebrahim rejects the idea that his armed group has somehow been vanquished.

“We are not surrendering. Decommissioning is not tantamount to surrender,” said the septuagenarian leader who fought the government for 50 years. He said the group’s members now plan to use the democratic process to fight for their people’s cause.

At the start of the bulk decommissioning of firearms and weapons on September 7, Ebrahim extended Duterte a token of appreciation “for what he has done to the Bangsamoro people and our homeland.” The token, ironically, was an Israeli-made Tavor assault rifle.