MILF militant lying prone, 1999. Photo: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco, via Wikimedia Commons.
MILF militant lying prone, 1999. Photo: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco, via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent armed conflict between two groups within the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is sending the Philippine government a message: Even within the group’s hierarchy, internal conflicts could erupt anytime. The Philippine government should prepare mechanisms on how to prevent internal armed conflicts within the MILF organization before it signs a peace pact with the country’s largest militant organization.

This week’s series of armed encounters in Maguindanao in the Southern Philippines erupted from a land dispute between two groups belonging to the MILF’s 105th Base Command. It killed at least four MILF fighters. Dozens of public school teachers were trapped in the crossfire where heavily armed MILF fighters exchange bullets from assault rifles and shoulder-fire grenades.

Military sources confirmed that two MILF commanders Jabick and Mulato are squabbling to control strategic patches of lands in the area that evolved their dispute to armed conflict displacing more than 200 Muslim ethnic families.

While President Rodrigo Durterte signed a presidential policy to expand the membership of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) from 15 to 21 seats, the Philippine government should also study of establishing mechanisms of settling internal conflicts within the MILF organization. The BTC is a panel of negotiators representing both the government and the Bangsarmoro, the group that will represent the, MILF, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro civil societies and the lumads.

The Commission’s primordial duty is to draft the law that will create a proposed Islamic government within the Philippine government with the principle that providing self autonomy among the Muslim population will provide lasting peace in the restive region.

But the next challenge of the Duterte administration is how to disarm the 15,000 MILF fighters which have been part of the MILF’s historic political struggle for independence. Many analysts also believe that as long as the MILF fighters are heavily armed, there will always be temptation for internal armed conflict that will promote clan wars within the organization.

Dean Julkipli Wadi of the Philippine Institute of Islamic Studies and a Muslim scholar said to CNN that the MILF as a revolutionary force will find it hard to surrender their arms and because of the gun culture in Mindanao, there is no assurance that the decommissioned members will no longer keep guns in their homes.

“In a land rife with conflict, owning a gun ensures safety and security,” Wadi added.

Even the Philippine military is helpless to intervene to prevent the ongoing conflict from escalating because of the ongoing ceasefire and peace process between the Philippine government and MILF.

The Philippine military prefers for MILF commanders to settle the conflict on their own to avoid complication of the armed conflict in Maguindanao, a known stronghold of the MILF.

Philippine military Major Gen. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, which provides security over Maguindanao’s 36 towns, earlier told the Philippine Star that the government wants internal armed conflicts among Moro commanders settled amicably by the ceasefire committee of the MILF.

The Duterte government should also learn from history that some disgruntled militants might have the tendency to form a new organization if they find the terms of the Philippine government unacceptable to them. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) used to be the largest revolutionary organization in the 1970s but when it started to engaged peace talks with the Philippine government, a group of disgruntled MNLF leaders defected and eventually formed the MILF.

When the MILF opened their doors to the Philippine government to start the peace negotiating process, a disgruntled group of MILF sub commanders led by Commander Bravo defected from the MILF and formed its own revolutionary group, the BIFF or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Philippine government peace negotiator Irene Santiago cited that the Philippines is currently 139th out of 163 states and territories in the Global Peace Index but if all sectors “work as system” to construct the eight pillars of Positive Peace, perhaps the Philippines will be in the top 10 of the most peaceful countries in the world by 2022.

The eight pillars of peace are a well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with our neighbors, sound business environment, high levels of human capital, equitable distribution of resources, and free flow of information.

The Philippine government will need to make a good offer and develop strategic mechanism to end once and for all insurgency and militancy that have been troubling the Philippines for over four decades. The Duterte administration is virtually negotiating on three fronts, the MILF, the MNLF and the New People’s Army whose peace talks are going on.

Surprisingly, the Duterte administration is also presently studying the possibility whether or not to initiate peace talks with the Isis-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). ASG was tagged by the FBI as a terrorist organization and the Philippine laws have a pending no negotiation policy with terrorists. The ASG has been involved in Kidnap for ransom activities victimizing both ASEAN and Western nationals, the recent of which is a German national on board his yacht cruising the Southern Philippines.

Despite the complexities of the peace process, many Filipinos still believe Duterte, who still enjoys a high level of public trust, has the capability to forge a peace pact with these revolutionary organizations. If he succeeds, he will be the first Filipino president to end all insurgencies in the Philippines since 1970. But one question that is still far from answer is, are the revolutionary fighters ready to drop off their sophisticated firearms when they sign the peace pact with the government? Philippine negotiators then have to lobby well.

Noel Tarrazona

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist and a graduate school lecturer.