Violent incidents down but peace remains fragile in Bangsamoro

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Manila (CNN Philippines, September 3) — The country’s most conflict-torn region saw a significant decline in the number of violent incidents and deaths in 2018, but peace efforts remain in a delicate stage, according to data gathered by peace group International Alert Philippines.

From 4,140 in 2017, conflict incidence across all provinces in in the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM (now Bangsamoro Autonom Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM) has dropped 30% to 2,910 in 2018 according to a report released by Conflict Alert Tuesday.

Conflict Alert is the regional monitoring system of International Alert Philippines.

Deaths from these conflicts also marked a substantial 60% drop from 2,261 in 2017 to 900 in 2018, the report stated.

Meanwhile, bombing incidents declined from 193 incidents in 2017 to 166 in 2018, and were less deadly in 2018 with five recorded deaths per incident, slightly down from six in 2017.

Data from International Alert also cited the 31% decline in gun-related deaths from 1,290 in 2017 to 891 in 2018, giving credit to the Philippine National Police (PNP) for making “more arrests for illegal possession of firearms in 2018” through martial law.

Nikki Dela Rosa, International Alert country manager, partly attributed the drop in conflict incidence to a decline in “coordinated attacks and the lesser use of explosives by various armed groups.”

The Mindanao martial law, which President Rodrigo Duterte imposed following the outbreak of violence in Marawi City in May 2017, also “deterred the carrying and use of firearms,” which Dela Rosa said, subsequently allowed government “to maintain a fragile peace” in the region.

“Nowhere in Mindanao has the impact of martial law as strategic and decisive as in Muslim Mindanao,” Conflict Alert indicated in its report.

However, International Alert said it is not taking sides on martial law in Mindanao.

“We are not arguing for an extension of martial law. What we are saying is that any plan to lift martial law should first be preceded by a major political settlement and agreement about the management, carrying and use of firearms,” Francisco Lara, senior peace and conflict adviser of International Alert Philippines told reporters.

Decomissioning the MILF

As part of the peace agreement it signed with the government in 2014, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is set to decommission its combatants and weapons. The first of three tranches of MILF rebels, numbering about 12,000, will begin undergoing disarmament on September 7.

The Conflict Alert report, however, describes the impact of the decommissioning process to declining violence in Mindanao as “negligible” since the process does not cover firearms personally owned by MILF members.

“There are more problems with weapons that are in the hands of the general public,” Lara explained, citing Mindanao’s perennial problem of loose firearms.

Going down from significantly high levels

International Alert noted that the level of violence in the former ARMM “remained significantly higher” from 2016 to 2018, than the trend three years before.

“Conflict deaths have also decreased but not as low as in the years prior to the spike in 2016, when violent extremism incidents began to erupt just before the 2017 Marawi war,” Lara said.

Lara added that “certain conditions” will have to be put in place if the martial law declaration is lifted, such as forging “political settlements” on civilian use of weapons.

“If that is not done among the political leaders, among clan leaders in Mindanao, then there is a very real possibility of a return to the previous situation and the demolition of the fragile peace that we have right now,” Lara said.

“It is certainly critical because extremist violence remains resilient and resurgent. Tensions are rising because of the unexplainable delays in the Marawi reconstruction process that has added to the grievances of those affected, especially women and the youth,” Dela Rosa added.