• Ann Febel Bajo

Security Risks and Challenges in BARMM

Photo Source: Inquirer

The decommissioning of 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and recorded estimation of 7,000 MILF-firearms primarily aims to end all forms of violence between the Philippine Government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the MILF. This forms part of the Normalization provision of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). The Normalization program prepares former MILF combatants to transform their lives to productive civilians, with the provision of socio-economic support to them and their families by the Philippine Government. As of to date, 12,000 BIAF were decommissioned by the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) completing Phase 2 of the two-year decommissioning timeline that started since late 2019. But still, 70% of the remaining BIAF are yet to be decommissioned. However, the completion of the decommissioning process does not give an assurance of peace in the region. There are existing security risks and challenges that threaten the peace and stability of BARMM, namely governance challenges, resurgence of Muslim rebellion and proliferation of horizontal conflicts.

Governance Challenges

The Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) composed of appointed MILF and Philippine Government officials are currently facing challenges in governing BARMM. Despite efforts of the BTC in implementing the provisions of CAB, there are still issues that need to be addressed such as the normalization of the MILF combatants. The MILF has now realized the intricacies of running a bureaucratic government. As a rebel group, they primarily confront immediate results of justice with armed conflict. As rulers, they are faced with a constructed parliament government, which is very new to them and requires technical knowledge. With these, they are proving to be less adept at governance than they are as a military organization and armed resistance. The difficulties in the transition in terms of governance can brew dissatisfaction amongst the Bangsamoro population if issues on good governance, security protection and transitional justice and reconciliation are left unresolved. Not to mention, the delays in government socio-economic support provided for former rebels as stipulated in the agreement. Although there is a mechanism, the Inter-Cabinet Cluster Mechanism (EO 79) that mandates the Office of the Presidential Adviser for Peace Process and different line agencies to support the MILF in their transition, the plight can be quite overwhelming. This poses a challenge for the MILF to secure their post in the Bangsamoro parliament in the upcoming elections. A weak MILF victory in the upcoming elections will taint the group’s credibility and may lead to another resurgence of Muslim rebellion.

Resurgence of Muslim Rebellion

The possibility of resurgence of separatist sentiments in the MILF and MNLF is not far-fetched because of dissatisfaction of both parties. Despite the peace agreement, the MILF remains to be threat if the BIAF is not fully decommissioned. The possibility that the MILF will retaliate and raise arms again is likely if they do not get elected to the Bangsamoro parliament and parochial politics will remain victorious in the upcoming BARMM election. At the same time, the existence of rogue MNLF group remains persistence in which Philippine Government forces is trying to manage. The sentiments of the MNLF has boiled down to their discontent that the current structure of BARMM is MILF-led. In addition, conflict between the Philippine Government and these rebel groups may cause major setback in the peace process. There were previous incidents that decreased the confidence of the Filipino people in the MILF, such as the Mamasapano massacre. The death of the 44 Special Action Forces in 2015 reinforced the prejudices against the MILF by the public. Skirmishes as such, exacerbated by prevailing horizontal conflicts, makes Muslim Mindanao constantly at risk.

Proliferation of Horizontal Conflicts

Muslim Mindanao is also vulnerable to horizontal conflicts. Horizontal conflicts are violent encounters that occur between equal actors, such as “Rido” or clan feud, ethnic conflict, and private armed groups (PAGs). The existence of terrorist groups in the region, like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), is also a perennial problem. Likewise, Mindanao is prone to illegal drugs and firearms. Rank-and-file MILF rebels dissatisfied with the decision of MILF leadership may also resort to criminal activities because they have limited professional skills if the Bangsamoro economy were to shift full gear to a peacetime economy. Unfortunately, law enforcers have the difficult task to carry out the law and mitigate horizontal conflicts and criminal activities because of the ‘gun culture’ in the region. Militant groups and ordinary civilians have illegally acquired firearms to protect themselves. This needs to be resolved by effectively enforcing law and order, particularly gun control. This can help change the mindset of the people regarding the use of firearms and gun ownership. In addition, the GPH-MILF peace panel organized the Joint Peace and Security Teams (JPST) in order to mitigate risks caused by horizontal conflicts. A joint GPH-MILF armed force has been deployed to different areas of BARMM to dismantle PAGs and secure MILF communities to establish peace and order in the region.

The upcoming BARMM elections in 2022 has raised the question of whether the MILF is ready for to take on the full wheel and govern BARMM. In the one hand, supporters of BARMM have called upon the extension of the Bangsamoro transition due to challenges in the implementation of CAB during the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused problems as it slowed down the Normalization process, caused delay in the transition that push the BTC to its deadline and compromised funding support for BARMM to support the ongoing efforts for the pandemic. On the other hand, those who are against extending the deadline highlighted the failure of the MILF and calls for an accountability of BTC’s accomplishments. The Philippine Government has yet to decide and take action on this issue. Nonetheless, the issue of peace and stability is not purely resolving the conflict between the GPH and MILF but managing drivers of conflict. Issues such as poverty, terrorism, ‘rido,’ PAGs and other militant groups add up to the complexity of the problem in Muslim Mindanao. In whichever case, these security risks and challenges remain at large and threaten the peaceful resolution within the autonomous region.


Ann Bajo is a Senior Defense Analyst in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. She presented this article during the US-Philippines Society Business Meeting in February 2019. She also has her own start-up social enterprise called the Coffee Press Co., which supports communities that are victims of armed conflict by selling locally-produced coffee from Sulu, Philippines.

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