MILF in talks with Moro fighters to disarm for BBL

Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 23 2017 10:03 AM | Updated as of Sep 23 2017 11:46 AM

Moro Islamic Liberation Front Central Committee Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar preparing to take questions from journalists.

COTABATO CITY - The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has initiated talks with other armed groups in the southern Philippines to get their support for a proposed law creating a new autonomous Bangsamoro region, the group's central committee vice chair Ghazali Jaafar said Friday.

The MILF's move comes as battles between government forces and Islamic State-inspired terrorists continued in Marawi City.

Now on its fourth month, the firefights, which erupted on May 23, has brought the once booming Muslim majority city to its knees, leaving buildings and homes in ruins and forcing at least 200,000 residents to flee. The siege triggered a Mindanao-wide military rule that would remain in effect until the end of the year.

Enactment of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), recently certified as an urgent measure by President Rodrigo Duterte, will convince armed groups to lay down arms, Jaafar told international journalists.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front Central Committee Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar gives opening statement before Q&A with journalists.

"This will convince the Maute, this will convince the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters), this will convince the Abu Sayyaf, this will convince the other groups," he said.

Jaafar said the MILF, which reached a landmark peace deal with the government in 2014, intends to convince everyone to lay down their arms. 

“That is our plan because by that time we have a government… If the Bangsamoro Basic Law is acceptable to them, they will definitely support that government. They will definitely, inshallah (If Allah wills), join the fold for, after all, they are fighting now in order to have a government for the Moro people.”

Though the MILF disagrees with the other armed groups, which have been tagged in criminal activities, Jaafar said the MILF has started talking to them, and that he would inform Duterte about this effort.

"Our objective is to convince them to return to the folds of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and it is an obligation, duty to talk to our brothers as Muslims in order to avoid fighting against anyone of them. Fighting against anyone of them is the most hated situation," he said.

He added: "We hate this situation, but sometimes it is very necessary in order not to expand or in order to prevent an individual from expanding to a larger area. That is one of the reasons."

Funding from Middle East

Jaafar confirmed reports of armed groups nurturing ties with the Middle East-based ISIS advocating violent extremism for funding purposes. 

"I don’t know of any ISIS here, but these groups are taking advantage of the ISIS in the Middle East to solve their logistics problems," he said.

Asked if this meant funding for local groups, Jaafar said yes.

"They may be allied there, for what purpose? For logistic[s] purpose[s], and so they can go on with what they are doing now," he said.

Earlier reports have linked the Maute, Abu Sayyaf, and BIFF groups to the ISIS, which is known to be seeking to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia amid losses in Iraq and Syria. 

Descriptions of these local groups' association or relationship with ISIS have ranged from getting inspiration or funding, to leadership.

The Marawi siege was said to have been inspired by calls from ISIS to travel to the southern Philippines. This is aligned with the narrative on active recruitment that has allegedly seen southeast Asian extremist fighters going to the Philippines. These fighters have also traveled to southern Thailand, and to Rakhine in Myanmar, one academic expert said.

A Pentagon official earlier said that ISIS recruitment for fighters in the Philippines continues. Another said separately that the US is very concerned by ISIS presence in the Philippines, and that instability in the southern region is driven by local conditions. 

'BBL the only solution'

Jaafar made the strongest pitch yet for the BBL legislation and called this the 'only solution' against recruitment for violent extremism in southern Philippines. 

Still, he justified the groups' moves as a form of armed struggle, saying this is the only way they know how to fight for Muslim independence.

"We do not agree [with] the way they (other armed groups) are fighting. We do not agree. This (BBL) is the only solution... But if the problem is solved, there is no reason for anybody anymore to fight... They are also fighting because they want to have a government," he said.

In an extensive speech to give foreign journalists a background on the MILF cause, Jaafar described the proposed BBL as the "implementation of signed negotiated political settlements of the Bangsamoro issues" reached from Tripoli in 1976 to the one in 2014 between his group and the government. 

In the MILF draft, the BBL abolishes the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and establishes the Bangsamoro political entity via a self-government that has an "asymmetrical political relationship with the Central Government on the principles of subsidiarity and parity of esteem." 

Draft measures for the Bangsamoro federal-style region have been dogged by inconsistencies with the 1987 Constitution and the current unitary system of government, making the push for the new region one with constitutional repercussions. 

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Editor's note: The author is participating in the East-West Center's Senior Journalists' Program, which includes dialogues with governance and security experts in the United States, the Philippines, and Morocco.