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Former Moro rebels pin hopes on long-term peace to improve lot.

Simuay Crossing, Sultan Kudarat: Mohammad Yakub Nur still remembers the period when he had to take up arms not just for protection, but to oust an oppressive government.

He recalls a tumultuous time when then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Barely out of his teens, Nur took up arms against the government and joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a secessionist movement that aimed to establish a nation for Moros, the Muslims of southern Philippines.

"It was a difficult period, not just for me being a rebel but for my family as well," Nur said.

Later on he switched his allegiance to a breakaway faction of the MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a movement that not just wants to put up a state for Muslims in the Philippine, but also establish an independent area in the South where Moros can not only observe their faith, but also their distinct customs and follow Islamic law.

Nur rose up in the MILF hierarchy to become head of the operations department of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the movement's armed wing.

Nur said he had fought one battle too many and is looking forward to such a time when he can settle down with his family peacefully. At 57, he can only do so much as look back over the lost opportunities and the lives claimed by the conflict.

In ceremonies at the Old Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol building, Nur led 145 members of the BIAF in registering with the government for "decommissioning," as part of processes agreed upon by the two sides.

Asked by Gulf News if he agreed to the decommissioning in exchange for any favour from the government, he said: "They did not promise us anything."

During the ceremony, those who agreed to be decommissioned were issued a special card that makes them eligible for health benefits and other government assistance.

At the same ceremony in Simuay Crossing, 75 weapons ranging from Second World War era firearms as well as a heavy machinegun and several mortars were turned over to the International Decommissioning Body led by Turkey, with Brunei and Norway also being members. Some of the weapons are still in working condition or are serviceable. They will be stored in Camp Iranun in Maguindanao at a structure guarded by the government and the MILF. The handing over of the weapons and registration of the "decommissioned" MILF fighters signal the start of the decommissioning process.

President Benigno Aquino witnessed the ceremony alongside members and senior MILF officials as well as government officials.

Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the lead peace negotiator for the government, said the decommissioning process had been agreed upon earlier during the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March last year. It is part of the "normalisation" phase of the pact that aims to provide former rebels with an opportunity to return to civilian life.

The fact that the ceremonies were performed at a dilapidated government building in Simuay Crossing was symbolic and intended.

"We are at a crossroad," MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said while pointing out that after over 17 years of negotiations, the government and the MILF only have the choice of two paths.

"The first road leads to a dark fearful Bangsamoro area -- without hope, without peace, without justice. It leads to a Bangsamoro where people's lives are shorter, where children do no have good education and where young men and women have no jobs and where natural resources are exploited to the detriment of the Bangsamoro people."

"The second road leads to a Bangsamoro that is prosperous and free where children can dream and be whoever they want to be."

"We in the MILF have made a choice. We choose a Bangsamoro that is happy and peaceful. We choose security over insecurity," Iqbal said during a speech delivered at the decommissioning ceremonies in Simuay Crossing.

The MILF and the government had signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March last year after more than a decade of peace negotiations.

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are now reviewing the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will be implemented in Muslim majority areas in the Philippines after a referendum. Aquino said he expects to sign the new law before his term in office ends in 2016.

MILF Chairperson Murad Ebrahim said agreeing to decommissioning is by no means a sign of "weakness" for the MILF.

"Some people think that allowing the start of the decommissioning despite the fact that the Bangsamoro Basic Law has been passed is a sign of weakness. It is not. It is a sign of strength for our strength does not lie in our firearms but in the love and affection of the Bangsamoro people," he said.

He said what is important is that the MILF rank and file has the support of the Bangsamoro people. "We may have all the arms in the world, and yet there will be no victory [without the support of the Moro people]," Murad said.

The CAB stipulates that 30 per cet of MILF combatants and weapons will be decommissioned upon the passage of the BBL, to be followed by another 35 per cent after the plebiscite and the appointment of members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. The remaining 35 per cent will be decommissioned once the Bangsamoro government is established and its leaders are duly elected.

Murad said that as part of the decommissioning process it had been agreed upon that six major camps of the MILF will be turned over to a joint MILF-government task force.

These former MILF camps are expansive and are situated in agricultural areas. Camp Iranun (former Camp Abubakre As Siddique), which overlaps the boundaries of three provinces in Central Mindanao for example, is about the size of Singapore.

The area is also rich in natural and mineral resources such as shale rocks. A foreign firm has been reported to be eyeing the establishment of a fracking facility at a site in Camp Iranun.

For Mohammad Yakub Nur, he can only do so much as pin his hopes on the prospect of the BBL being passed so that his children and grandchildren would be able to reap the promised benefits of a brighter economic future without the fear of conflict.

"We owe it to our Bangsamoro brothers that we right the wrongs that we had committed in the past. This is what we have collectively fought for," he said.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Jun 21, 2015
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