Editor’s Note: The normalization track of the Bangsamoro peace process involves the decommissioning of 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants and their firearms, as well as their transformation to civilian and productive members of society through the provision of socioeconomic development programs and other peace dividends, extending to their families and communities.

Macaraya Ampuan, an influential leader who once commanded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front unit, in a meeting with villagers, contractors, and NGO workers on a new water pump in Padas, the Philippines, April 13, 2019. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)
Macaraya Ampuan, an influential leader who once commanded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front unit, in a meeting with villagers, contractors, and NGO workers on a new water pump in Padas, the Philippines, April 13, 2019. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)

Decommissioning is a complementary track that is crucial to the success of the leadership of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). However, despite ongoing efforts, the roll out of the socioeconomic development programs has been delayed, mostly because of budgetary constraints and the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this article, Jamal Ali, a planning officer from the BARMM’s Ministry of Public Order and Safety, and a former development officer from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity, summarizes the framework and milestones of the socioeconomic development aspect of normalization initiatives, the hurdles it has faced and the way forward to sustain the gains.

The normalization — disarmament, demobilization and reintegration — of former combatants in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a critical component of the peace process in southern Philippines. This track includes socioeconomic development programs for decommissioned combatants, their families and communities that are provided through cooperatives with the goal of creating opportunities for long-term employment and social entrepreneurship.

As Haji Imlah Ajibon, the president of the Kakugan Multi-Venture Agri-Marine Marketing Cooperative, noted, these programs are critical for ensuring that decommissioned combatants are full and recognized members of Bangsamoro society. “We will not consider these projects as compensation for our decommissioning, but they are just a few of the government programs to make us feel that they are not neglecting us,” he said.

The cooperatives are located in the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Davao Oriental, Davao del Norte and Davao del Sur. The livelihood projects, which are identified by the recipients through a series of community needs assessments, include mobile rice mills, solid waste management, farm machineries, and halal meat shops and abattoirs.

Addressing the Needs of the Moros

The signing of the Annex on Normalization of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014 acknowledged decades, if not centuries, of historical injustices committed against Moro people. It sought to address those injustices through the establishment of a political entity and a basic structure in government, thereby realizing the aspirations of Muslim Filipinos and all indigenous cultural communities in Mindanao for self-determination.

The CAB envisions a comprehensive political settlement aimed at achieving a fair and long-lasting end to the armed conflict in the Mindanao region. The CAB has two main tracks: a political-legislative track to replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and create a new Bangsamoro political entity, and a normalization track for the decommissioning and reintegration of MILF combatants.

Under the normalization track, the transformation starts after the decommissioning process, which includes the verification and registration of combatants by the Independent Decommissioning Body. Subsequently, decommissioned combatants are turned over to the Task Force for Decommissioned Combatants and their Communities for the general intake process that includes biometrics registration, socioeconomic profiling and needs assessment. The decommissioned combatants are provided identification cards and 100,000 pesos in transitional cash assistance as part of the socioeconomic development programs. This cash assistance is designed to address the basic needs of the decommissioned combatants and their families.

Socioeconomic Development Programs

The socioeconomic development programs are categorized into four categories: social protection, capacity development, livelihood and employment, and small-scale infrastructure.

Social protection programs include the abovementioned transitional cash assistance, health insurance and civil registration. Capacity development programs include skills training, values transformation and scholarship grant support. Livelihood and employment programs cover short-term employment, social entrepreneurship and livelihood investment support. Finally, construction and rehabilitation of community infrastructures and facilities, and provision of housing assistance are part of the small-scale infrastructure programs.

The transformation process ends when the decommissioned combatants, their families and their communities have received these socioeconomic interventions and other peace dividends, reintegrated into mainstream society, are engaged in formal governance processes and enjoying a productive and sustainable civilian life.

Milestones in the Ongoing Normalization Efforts

As of August 2022, a total of 19,345 (48.36%) of the target 40,000 MILF combatants have been decommissioned and provided transitional cash assistance through the Department of Social Welfare and Development. All combatants are expected to be decommissioned and processed by 2024. Some of the decommissioned combatants have received individual socioeconomic interventions, which have been extended to their families, including the 2,209 people who completed skills training courses offered by the Technical Education and Skills Training Authority, the 450 people who completed values transformation training offered by the Bangsamoro Development Agency and the 1,030 beneficiaries of the Department of Labor and Employment’s cash-for-work emergency employment program.

As part of the small-scale infrastructure program, the National Irrigation Administration has constructed and rehabilitated communal irrigation systems in seven communities and the Department of Health has constructed rural health units in six communities.

Delivery of the socioeconomic development programs remains on track and is being implemented by the government through the Inter-Cabinet Cluster Mechanism on Normalization (ICCMN). Various national agencies are members of the ICCMN thereby ensuring the timely and efficient implementation of the socioeconomic development aspect of the normalization programs as well as other peace dividends for decommissioned combatants and their communities.

Confronting Challenges

In spite of the ongoing efforts, there are number of factors that hinder the government's capacity to provide all of the socioeconomic initiatives immediately and in full. The primary reason for this is insufficient funding from the government. To date, a total of 2.6 billion pesos worth of investments have been made in 19,345 decommissioned combatants for a variety of socioeconomic initiatives. This sum is only a fraction of the investment that will be required to fully transform all 40,000 decommissioned combatants into productive citizens and MILF camps into developed communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the delivery of socioeconomic programs by limiting the availability of funds and restricting the mobility of personnel during 2020 and the first half of 2021.

Finally, the Commission on Elections’ decision to enforce a 45-day election ban on public spending, from March 25 to May 8 this year, delayed government operations and initiatives, including normalization programs for the decommissioned combatants.

Continuing Efforts to Sustain the Gains

The implementation of normalization initiatives has had its share of challenges which are being continually addressed by the government through a collaborative effort with its local and national line agencies, as well as international partners with the same goals of sustaining the gains of peace process initiatives in the BARMM.

Since 2019, different government agencies and international donors have entered agreements to ensure the immediate and efficient implementation of the various components of the normalization programs, including the socioeconomic development programs for decommissioned combatants and their communities, and the transformation of six MILF camps into developed communities.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges, the government, through the ICCMN, has vowed to realize the promised peace dividends for the decommissioned combatants and their communities. “Our investment in the normalization programs and projects must not be wasted,” Cabinet Secretary Melvin Matibag, who also serves as the ICCMN’s co-chairperson, said at the seventh meeting of the ICCMN in Davao City on May 18. “Let us keep in mind that the Annex on Normalization was signed in January 2014 yet it is our responsibility to prevent any further delays,” he added.

In addition to resource mobilization efforts, the previous government took the significant step of extending the transition period of the BARMM by three years. The region’s first parliamentary elections will now be held in 2025. The extension gives the peace mechanisms more time to implement their deliverables, including the delivery of socioeconomic development programs.

While recognizing the dedication of the government and the MILF’s leadership to ensure the delivery of the committed interventions, there is a need for the government to double down on pooling resources to meet the investment requirements, streamline implementation and ensure timely and efficient accomplishment of the outstanding deliverables. The election of a new government in the Philippines provides hope that peacebuilding efforts will be accelerated and sustained in the region.

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