By Zachary Abuza
On January 25, a detachment of elite Philippine National Police forces tried to capture a known member of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah — Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir, aka Marwan. The police clashed with forces from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), from which the BIFF broke away in 2010-11. Forty-four police were killed in the clash and 16 were wounded; at least five BIFF or MILF combatants were killed. There are unconfirmed reports that Marwan, who was being protected by the BIFF, was killed in the clash. Dozens of assault rifles, several with M203 grenade launchers, were captured by rebels.
Implications for the Peace Process
While a tactical loss for the Philippines, the clash is an even greater strategic challenge to the MILF. The clash is the first major violation in over a year of the ceasefire the group reached with the government in October 2012. It puts the MILF in an unwelcome spotlight as the Philippine Congress is deliberating the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will create the legal infrastructure to establish the Bangsamoro, a self-governing territory, and formally end the Moro insurgency, now in its fifth decade.
The Congress was expected to vote on the bill in March or April 2015. After the bill was negotiated and renegotiated, vetted by the president’s team of constitutional scholars, and sent through at least 35 hearings, lawmakers were likely to pass it with sufficiently limited amendments that they wouldn’t unravel the peace process
Now everything is in doubt; former pro-BBL members of Congress are publicly reconsidering or calling for more hearings and a deferred vote. The Congress has suspended hearings on the BBL and two senators have removed their names from the bill’s sponsorship; currently only 11 of 24 Senators are publicly supporting the bill. Forty-four dead police officers is not something the government can just attribute to a “miscommunication” in the hopes that it will not derail the peace process. The Congress can now be expected to take a very hard look at the issue of arms decommissioning and governance in the proposed Bangsamoro. The Senate is holding hearings on the clash on 4 February.
The BIFF and the MILF
BIFF cadres split from the MILF and quit the peace process in 2007-8, when an interim peace agreement was rejected by then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and then found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The BIFF was formally established in 2010-11. In mid-2014 its leaders pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, though this was little more than a publicity stunt and symbolic gesture — no links have been proven. The BIFF continues to engage in violence in order to spoil the peace process; allegedly giving sanctuary to terrorists like Marwan is part of that strategy.
But the MILF continues to give space to the BIFF. Though rivals, the two are bound by clan and kinship, which run very deep in Maguindanao. They split only over the issue of the peace process. The MILF are not going to drive the BIFF out of the territory that they have negotiated to be included in their autonomous zone. The MILF likes having its prodigal family members around, as they keep the Philippine military and police occupied, and serve as an insurance policy. If nothing else, the BIFF helps keep the peace process moving forward by reminding the Philippine government what an all-out war against the MILF would be like.
The Philippine government has always insisted that the existing ceasefire with the MILF does not apply to the BIFF. Yet military operations are supposed to be coordinated with the MILF as offensive operations against the BIFF necessarily go through MILF-claimed or -controlled territories. Philippine security forces insist that they coordinate all operations against the BIFF with the MILF, but this often takes away the element of surprise, as many MILF cadres tip off BIFF commanders. As the SAF commander put it: “We don’t trust the MILF.” The MILF argue that recent operations have not been coordinated and have been extremely provocative: “This nature of uncoordinated movement can trigger untoward incidents and worse, fierce encounter between the government and MILF forces,” warned a MILF coordinating committee member in mid-2014.
The Disarmament Question
One of the four annexes to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government and MILF signed in January 2014 was on normalization, which outlined the process of decommissioning rebel arms and demobilizing Moro forces. The MILF’s decommissioning of a token number of heavy crew-serviced weapons has already been postponed. Upon congressional approval of the BBL, the MILF will decommission 30 percent of its weaponry. When the Bangsamoro government and its local police force are established, the MILF will decommission anther 35 percent of its arms. The final 35 percent is supposed to be decommissioned when an “Exit Agreement” is signed. But the normalization annex allows for individual members to keep some small arms. This has already set off alarm bells among critics of the peace process, who warn that if left armed, MILF members will simply join the BIFF and engage in lawlessness.
Calls are going to grow even louder from the government side for the disarmament of the MILF so that weapons do not make their way to the BIFF, MILF units don’t become criminal elements themselves, and they do not quit the peace process and resume hostilities. But the lesson the MILF has taken from the recent clash is that full decommissioning is not salient as government forces will invade what the rebels consider sovereign Bangsamoro territory at will if they do not maintain the capacity to engage in self-defense.
Moreover, the MILF is angered that Philippine forces hold onto captured BIFF camps, which are in the heartland of territory under the future Bangsamoro. This security environment makes the MILF less willing to surrender its arms. On January 28, government and MILF representatives gathered for a previously scheduled meeting in Kuala Lumpur to discuss arms decommissioning, though the death of the 44 police clearly overshadows the talks.
The clash could have been avoided. But the security forces do not trust the MILF, which they view as playing a double game. The MILF has a legal obligation to police its territory and rid itself of unlawful elements. It has a strategic obligation as well: if it is to be treated as an equal partner and a legitimate sovereign, then it has to act against terrorists and criminal groups. The BIFF is not a chit to be played, when the two sides are so close to concluding the historic peace agreement.
In his January 28 speech to the nation, President Benigno Aquino called for “concrete action” from the MILF to police its territory and cut ties to the BIFF. And while the MILF’s press release stated that its fighters operated in self-defense and pledged to open its own inquiry into the incident, it did not even mention the BIFF or explain its relationship with the splinter group.
President Aquino has had to walk a fine line, calling the MILF to account and rejecting their pledge of an internal probe as insufficient, but relieving the Philippine National Police Special Action Forces commander of his post. At the same time, Aquino has had to resist demands from the security forces for retribution, while maintaining his commitment to the peace process. As he said, the government and MILF have come too far not to deliver a just and lasting peace.