Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at their stronghold at Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines. Pic: AP.

Among the contentious issues in the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is the disposition of forces and decommissioning of firearms of the rebel group.

These, however, proved to be the easiest among the four major agenda in the peace process, taking just one session for the agreement to be concluded.

Various estimates put the MILF firepower at 12,000 automatic rifles and an undisclosed number of light machineguns and light artillery, including its signature RPG launchers.  A significant number of firearms are said to be in the possession of MILF supporters and a far larger count of loose firearms are in the hands of individuals and private armies.

It is no wonder that in the annex on normalization – the last of four critical agenda in the peace talks concluded on Sunday – the MILF insisted on the dismantling of private armies.  Who and where these private armies are was not disclosed in the Annex signed in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.

The Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro is expected to be signed in Malacañang in February or March.

The MILF has not stated how much military arsenal is in the possession of its members.

While both panels have agreed on the decommissioning of the MILF firearms and the re-integration of members of the MILF’s armed wing – the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces – into the mainstream of society, the process of “putting them  [the weapons] beyond use” will now be on the lookout of an Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) that will be created later.

The MILF has insisted it will not turn over its firearms to the government as this would constitute surrender, a legitimate concern the Philippines government fully understood. 

MILF peace panel chair Mohaqer Iqbal is also adamant that there should be no destruction of firearms turned over to the IDB.  How to avoid these armaments from falling into the hands of the MILF again without destroying them may be an easy task, but not foolproof.

Iqbal cited the Irish Republican Army (IRA) experience as model for its disarmament.  The IRA yielded its weaponry to an independent body.  The firearms were later destroyed, however.   Like the IRA experience, too, concerns over the actual number of firearms in the inventory of the MILF and the cache it will turn over to the IDB lie on the goodwill of the Moro rebel group.

The fourth annex also included a provision on the creation of a Bangsamoro police force where the firearms could later be re-issued.

But all these will have to wait until Philippine Congress passes a law that will embody all provisions both parties have agreed upon in the four annexes of the peace agreement.

Between now and Congress passing that law, the onus of making the peace process work lies with the seven-man Bangsamoro Transition Authority which will be chaired by the MILF.

The MILF is expected to come under heavy fire and close scrutiny from rival rebel factions.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) will claim that while it has been accused of capitulation, it never surrendered or laid down its arms.  The MNLF is already threatening to unilaterally abandon the Jakarta Peace Accord and resume their armed revolt for an independent Moro homeland.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), on the other hand, while saying they will respect the GRP-MILF peace agreement, will undoubtedly welcome divisions between the MILF leadership and its ground forces as it positions itself as the “sole revolutionary organization” of the Moro people. 

The BIFF is a breakaway faction of the MILF, which saw the abandonment of the creation of an independent Islamic state as a betrayal to the raison d’ etre of the Moro rebel organization, when the latter also broke away from the MNLF in 1978.

Iqbal and the entire MILF leadership know the peace process cannot afford to fail.

In his very own words, Iqbal said the disarmament of the MILF is an irreversible act once it is done.

The MILF will have to convince its members that turning over their firearms is the necessary act to end the centuries-old armed hostilities in Mindanao.