By Business Mirror; September 4 2019

Image Credit to Business Mirror

IF the government wants to keep the fragile peace prevailing in Mindanao, it cannot solely rely on the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and martial law imposed in the region, International Alert said on Tuesday.

In a briefing on its Conflict Alert report, International Alert said while the number of violent incidents and deaths in the Bangsamoro region plunged in 2018, there is a chance it will continue and escalate.

Currently, what seems to be holding the peace is the passage of the BOL and martial law which has been in place since May 2017. It was recently extended by Congress until the end of 2019.

“The State was also able to maintain a fragile peace in the Bangsamoro [region] by imposing martial law, which deterred the carrying and use of firearms,” International Alert Philippines Country Manager Nikki de la Rosa said.

The report said conflict incidence in the Bangsamoro region dropped 30 percent to 2,910 incidents in 2018 from 4,140 incidents in 2017.

Conflict-related deaths also declined by 60 percent to 900 deaths in 2018 from 2,261 deaths in 2017.

However, the level of violence in the region remained higher between 2016 and 2018 compared to the 2013 to 2015 period.

Weapons are key

International Alert Senior Peace and Conflict Adviser Francisco Lara said the key in preventing violence from continuing and escalating is the use of weapons.

De la Rosa said the presence of weapons usually leads to violence. And in the Philippines, through Republic Act 10591 otherwise known as the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act passed in 2013, this can be difficult.

The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the law says, a licensed citizen with at least 16 firearms “upon the effectivity of this IRR shall be automatically certified as a gun collector and shall secure a Type 5 License to Own and Possess Firearms.”

Lara noted: “Under 10591, you can set up your own security firm. So what’s going to happen? The MILF can turn itself into a major blue guard organization. I mean, I’m not being bizarre here. Those are the possibilities that were put under 10591 when PNoy [former President Benigno Aquino III] signed that agreement. And we have been railing against that because it’s inconsistent.”

At the national level, he added, “you permit people to own as many as 15 firearms per person, including priests, entertainers, lawyers, bankers, check the list. That’s in the books. And then you’re going to tell the Moro people they cannot have firearms? That’s a discriminatory law against a practice to decommission. What will happen is that people will maintain their ownership of weapons or even buy more.”

De la Rosa said an agreement on the ground to disallow the carrying of weapons in public is needed.

This, she said, was part of the success of the Iranun corridor in keeping and maintaining peace. The agreement, Lara said, is being implemented by the 813th Infantry Battalion.

The Iranun corridor is the only area in Bangsamoro that was not penetrated by extremists and where conflict-related violence is still low.

She said part of the success of the Iranun corridor in peace and development is the strategy of the military, which came bearing livelihood projects, not just guns.

‘Include communities’

Meanwhile, the group said, while martial law in Mindanao has contributed to fewer deaths and violent conflicts in 2018, the planned decommissioning of the MILF should also include communities.

De la Rosa said the sharp decrease in incidents of deaths and conflicts was partly borne by fewer coordinated attacks and the lesser use of explosives by Mindanao armed groups.

The group said the Philippine National Police made more arrests for illegal possession of firearms last year, leading to a decline in gun-related deaths by 31 percent from 1,290 in 2017 to 891 in 2018.

Bombings also declined from 193 incidents in 2017 to 166 in 2018, according to the group, whose report also covered Isabela and Cotabato Cities, and the Davao and Caraga regions.

Lara believes the impact of the decommissioning of MILF forces would be “negligible” in Mindanao in terms of weapons, although he acknowledged that it could be an important part of settling the conflict between the government and the group.

“There has been two types of weapons…those…owned by the [MILF] members and those that are owned by the organization. The agreement is to decommission those… owned by the organization and not but by the members,” he said.

“So, there you go, I think that it’s explanatory for the amount of weapons that will remain in the hands of combatants even after this process. So that’s the reason why we do not think there’s going to be any impact at all. There are more problems with weapons that are in the hands of general public,” Lara added.

He said his group applauds the plan to retire MILF weapons “that are supposed to be in the hands of MILF combatants,” but the effort is not enough and should not lead to expectations of a major drop in attacks related to the use of firearms.

Lara also said normalization should not only focus on the MILF fighters, but also communities, a matter raised by villagers during their conduct of the study.

Beyond plebiscite

Apart from keeping weapons at bay, International Alert said it was important to remember that a “plebiscite does not cement the right to rule and neither will the reference to one united Bangsamoro.”

Currently, de la Rosa said, there is some level of dissatisfaction on the ground when it comes to the priorities of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC).

This dissatisfaction, she said, stems from the lack of social services. This, de la Rosa said, must change for the better and in order to help the regional government to establish its legitimacy and credibility.

Lara added that the BTC is currently only focused on creating laws and codes for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Efforts to address new kinds of violence are vital, as well. Since 2011, shadow-economy issues such as illegal drugs and firearms were the primary causes of conflict.

Conflicts from identity issues—linked to cultural or tradition-based conflicts—were also on the rise.