As expected, Muslim rebels in the Philippines began retiring fighters and handing over weapons to the government this week in a demonstration of their commitment toward an ongoing peace process.
The move is part of a peace agreement inked between the Philippine government, led by President Benigno Aquino III, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end one of Asia’s deadliest insurgencies which has killed more than 120,000 people.
Quantitatively, the decommissioning that began on Tuesday was but a small step. 75 firearms, including mortar and rocket launchers, were handed over, while 145 guerillas out of an estimated 10,000 prepared to return back to civilian life. But both sides nonetheless praised it as an important step. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the MILF chairman, said that it was proof of the group’s belief that its strength lay not in firearms it held but the affection of the Bangsamoro people it led. Aquino, who was present at the decommissioning, called it a “solid testament to the unreserved and honest participation” of the MILF.
At times, the remarks by both sides seemed intended less for each other than for the Philippine legislature. That is no surprise. As I pointed out in an earlier piece, the Philippine Senate failed to pass a key enabling law to the peace deal called the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by the June 11 deadline. That makes it less likely that peace can be sufficiently advanced before Aquino’s term expires following elections in May 2015, instead of leaving that up to his successor who may be less committed to it.
Given the stalling of the bill, both sides deserve credit for still trying to push on with other elements of the peace process that they control. But as I have argued before, there is only so much both sides can do without a proper framework for the governance of the region. Indeed, even advancing the staggered decommissioning process requires the meeting of political commitments on the government’s end, which includes the passage of the BBL.
In his remarks, which were delivered in Tagalog, Aquino hit back directly at opponents of the BBL. “Instead of asking: ‘How could I improve the BBL so it could solve the complaints of our countrymen,’ it seems they’re thinking: ‘How can I stop or block this?’”, he said.
Some lawmakers say they do have legitimate concerns with the BBL even though they are committed to peace. But as I have written before, after 17 years of arduous negotiations across four administrations, and with the patience of radical younger rebels wearing thin, time is running out and it is unclear whether such a chance will present itself again. As Aquino himself rhetorically asked: “We are being given an opportunity to correct what’s wrong. Will we turn our backs on it?”