Hope shone brighter in Mindanao on Saturday when Muslim rebels handed over their guns to independent foreign monitors despite last ditch violence still marking the start of their march to peace.
A bomb stuffed in a parked motorcycle went off near a market in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat early Saturday, but the incident did not stop President Rodrigo Duterte from witnessing the decommissioning ceremony in Maguindanao.
The Chief Executive deemed it more important to attend the affair than attend to concerns about his security.
Besides, Mr. Duterte fought hard to enter a treaty that was aimed at ending a decades-long separatist insurgency that has left about 150,000 people dead and scores of people scarred, aside from stalling the region’s economic progress.
Long restive, Mindanao saw the greatest number of weapons — about 940 rifles and assault weapons — turned over in a single day as part of a graduated decommissioning process that aims to turn the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest rebel force, into a regular political party.
The process was just symbolic. President Duterte is looking at the retirement of more than 40,000 MILF forces in the coming years. It is not an easy step, but it is worth the gamble of their signatures.
The disarmament will not be an easy process. This, despite the MILF leadership set to take their roles as civilian steersmen of a new Mindanao, through the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which was ratified following the 21 January 2019 plebiscite.
The BARMM will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) forged between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that was founded by Nur Misuari, who is also the first ARMM governor, in 1969.
The MILF was formed by the younger MNLF leaders in 1984. The split was not a quick process. Hashim Salamat and the other MNLF leaders had to wait for international support before they formally broke away from Misuari following the earlier internal rift in 1977.
The MILF took the more violent path, with some of its leaders also leaning towards extremism before many peace talks were held and culminated with an agreement of cooperation and the grant of autonomy under Mr. Duterte.
Last weekend, the MILF took the first step towards the realization of their collective dream.
In an AFP report, Paisal Abdullah Bagundang, 56, a self-described veteran of more than 100 firefights with government security forces since the 1970s, said “the war is over… I have no firearms left.”
No Muslim fighter would give up his gun in the past.
A Mindanaoan once claimed that a gun is more like a wife to a true Muslim fighter.
“They sleep with their guns, cook with their guns, brush their teeth with their guns,” he said without exaggeration.
Even MILF commander Murad Ebrahim is candid about gun ownership in Mindanao.
“Buying a gun here is like buying fish in the market,” he said. Whew!
But hopes are high on peace.
About a third of MILF combatants are to be retired over the coming eight months, along with their weapons.
Each fighter will receive about a million pesos in cash, scholarships, health insurance and training to become productive civilians. Many of them have set their minds into joining the mainstream.
Those facing criminal cases related to the insurgency will be granted amnesty.
Younger fighters can train to join the security forces if they are qualified.
Easy? No, it’s not.
Like the MNLF of old, the MILF is also a symbol of Mindanao’s past.
Extremism is also now gripping the region. There is a new war being fought by the extremist Muslim groups, largely represented by the Islamic State after the al-Qaeda was weakened by Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of the Americans in 2011. Combined, these two groups would make a potent threat to international security. Their local wings have started making their presence felt in Mindanao over the recent years.
The disarmament is an important step to peace. But government is also gripping at a new war that has taken a shape but without a face and operating without boundaries.
And while peace is within reach, a new force is pulling it away from us.