Symbolic and real
Tomorrow, the decommissioning of weapons and combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front begins with a symbolic ceremony to which members of the chambers of Congress who will decide on the fate of the Bangsamoro Basic Law have been invited. The event will be rich in the symbols of history and peace, but at the same time it will be a reminder that the true end of the Moro insurgency waged by the MILF is still a couple of years away. We hope that the symbolism inherent in the first phase of the decommissioning process will encourage the lawmakers to recommit themselves to the timely passage of a Bangsamoro law that will ensure the success of the three remaining phases of the process.
“Phase 1 of the process will begin with the ceremonial turnover of 55 high-powered and 20 crew-served weapons, and the decommissioning of 145 members of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces,” Prof. Miriam Coronel Ferrer, the chief government negotiator, announced last week. (By crew-served weapons she meant arms that require more than one person to operate.) The next two phases alone contemplate the decommissioning of about two-thirds of all MILF weapons and forces, as outlined in the Program for Normalization in the Bangsamoro. Phase 2, however, is a period that runs until the new Bangsamoro law is ratified; Phase 3 ends with the establishment of the Bangsamoro police force.
Tuesday’s ceremony, in other words, will be the only decommissioning to take place in the next several months; it will be easy for those skeptical of the terms of the peace agreement with the MILF, or of the MILF itself, to turn the symbolism of the ceremony into an excuse (“a mere show,” “an empty symbol,” and similar rhetorical putdowns) to withhold support for the new law or to demand new concessions. But we should remind them that the Philippine national community we are inviting MILF rebels to rejoin aspires to follow a fundamental principle of fairness: We give credit where credit is due.
And a decommissioning initiative on the scale defined in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is a first in our history, made possible because the MILF was finally prepared, in the words of Mohagher Iqbal, its chief negotiator, “to undertake the ultimate sacrifice.”
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles explained the significance of this sacrifice in simple terms. “We’ve never had an armed organization that has been fighting with government as an organization voluntarily—in partnership with the government—turn over weapons,” she said last week.
In other words, rebels are giving up the weapons that symbolize their rebellion, and returning to civilian life. To be sure, only a few dozen heavy weapons will be turned over to the Armed Forces tomorrow, and only 145 rebels (slightly more than 1 percent of the total estimated MILF force) are entering the normalization process that will, upon completion, grant them P25,000 in immediate cash assistance, membership in PhilHealth, and the possibility of making a living without the threat of further violence. But it is a start, and a good one. Filipinos invested in peace should welcome it.
As it has done in other aspects, the government and MILF peace panels have sought to learn from previous peace initiatives and tried to bring the lessons forward. Building on the success of the integration program which allowed former Moro National Liberation Front rebels to join the AFP after the 1996 peace agreement, the CAB’s Annex on Normalization included large-scale decommissioning of men and weapons. It is an ambitious undertaking.
Ambitious, but with considerable local and international support. The Aquino administration has found for the initiative the money it needs; the international community has genuinely been enthused about the prospect. The seven-person Independent Decommissioning Body set up by the peace agreement is headed by Ambassador Haydar Berk, once Turkey’s representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; he is assisted by a retired general from Norway and an officer of the Royal Brunei Land Force, as well as by four local experts.
Tomorrow’s radio and TV and social media commentators may emphasize the dramatic symbolism of the turnover. That is only necessary. But we should also remind ourselves that symbols such as tomorrow’s historic turnover have real-world consequences, too.
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