Efforts to remove and destroy firearms belonging to former Muslim separatist guerrillas – as required by a 2014 peace deal – have failed to make the southern Philippines much safer from gun violence, a conflict monitoring group is reporting.
There has been no proper accounting for the number of weapons that members of the former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrilla group have turned over and that have been decommissioned, analysts with International Alert Philippines said in presenting findings from their research over the last decade.
Many weapons are still circulating among militants and civilians in the south, they said.
“The reason why there is a proliferation of guns is because people in the Bangsamoro feel less protected,” Professor Francisco Lara Jr., the group’s senior conflict and peace adviser, said during a Thursday news conference announcing the release of the group’s new book, “Conflict’s Long Game: A Decade of Violence in the Bangsamoro.”
“Their security is more fragile than for anyone else in the region.”
International Alert said the government accepted the figure given to it by MILF officials that 14,000 guns had been decommissioned, but the number could not be verified. The leaders of the former armed separatist group control the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, as part of the 2014 peace deal with Manila, by which the MILF agreed to turn over and decommission weapons belonging to their fighters.
Officials with the MILF did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment on Friday.
Lara noted that a 2016 report estimated there were “more than 50,000 loose weapons in the Bangsamoro region.”
He said that unless all unlicensed firearms are accounted for, violence, regardless of the perpetrators, would continue. Destroying weapons once owned by former rebels would not solve the problem because the country’s existing laws enable citizens to own weapons and to carry them outside their homes under special circumstances.
“If we are granting every Filipino the right to carry licensed firearms outside their homes, the MILF can say, why can’t we do the same,” he said. “Why not just register their weapons and let’s forget decommissioning. It really is hard in a culture where weapons are an insurance for protection of their security, it is very difficult to remove that.”
On Friday, gun violence claimed another victim in the southern Philippines. The father of a doctor suspected of killing a former mayor and two others during a graduation ceremony at a Metro Manila university last weekend was himself fatally shot by gunmen on a motorcycle.
According to Lara, while the 12,000-member MILF, the country’s largest former separatist group, held many weapons, thousands were in the hands of smaller militant groups with ties to the Islamic State, criminal groups and civilians who arm themselves for protection.
‘Ordinary people who just want to protect themselves’
Businessman Basilio Lozano Miro, who runs a car rental service in southern Cotabato city, said it was normal for residents to own weapons – whether licensed or unlicensed.
“In the place where I live in Cotabato, about 80 percent of the households here own firearms. And these are ordinary people who just want to protect themselves,” said Miro, who never leaves home without his licensed gun and whose adult son was taught from a young age to properly load and shoot.
“Why would I disarm myself when criminals and militants themselves are armed?”
Razul Intalan, a 53-year-old former MILF member, said he had to decommission his weapon, but that did not mean he would go without protection.
“Part of the money they gave to me I had set aside so I could buy a new gun from the black market,” he told BenarNews, as he tended a small community variety store that he runs in a former rebel enclave.
He is too old to be accepted in the military or police force, but never too old to protect himself from enemies, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to lockdowns on large parts of the Philippine archipelago, along with the election of a new president, delayed the decommissioning process involving the former MILF fighters and their weapons. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the country’s new president, has not named a deputy to deal with the process.
“We have raised the point of facilitating rather than delaying the decommissioning process because the level of weaponry is still high and it’s getting higher,” Lara said.
Despite those concerns, Lara said the peace process was on the right track and moving “toward a soft spot” in terms of an overall decline in violence.
“The violence is declining in the Bangsamoro. The issue we are raising is, will this be sustainable?” he asked.
Meanwhile on Friday, gunmen on a motorcycle fatally shot retired police officer Roland Yumol outside his home in Lamitan, a city on southern Basilan Island. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead upon arrival.
Lt. Col. Tadzhabel Managola, the new Lamitan city police chief, said investigators were trying to determine the motive for killing Yumol and to identify the gunmen.
“Our investigation continues to establish a possible motive in the gun attack,” Managola told local journalists in Basilan.
Residents said it could have been a vendetta over the killing of former Lamitan city Mayor Rosita Furigay.
Police arrested Yumol’s son, Chao Tiao Yumol, alleging he shot and killed Furigay along with an aide and a security guard at the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Quezon city on July 24. Furigay’s daughter, who was to graduate from law school that day, was injured.
The younger Yumol had a long-running feud with Furigay, who closed his clinic three years ago because he allegedly was operating it without a license, according to authorities. Police said he was arrested within hours of the shooting, adding that officers seized a gun previously owned by a military officer who reported it missing years ago.
“That weapon included a silencer, so that gives you an indication about what sorts of problems beleaguer the region when it comes to weapons,” Lara said, citing the police report.
Philippine National Police did not link the two shootings.
“So far, it is speculative to assume its direct relation to the shooting incident that happened last Sunday at the Ateneo de Manila University,” Brig. Gen. Roderick Alba, the public information office chief, said in a statement, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.
Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel in Iligan city, and a correspondent in Zamboanga, Philippines, contributed to this report.