Clan feuds, violent extremism, illegal drugs and weapons use hamper Bangsamoro’s road to peace

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 26) – Clan feuds, violent extremism, illegal drugs and weapons are the three main roadblocks to Bangsamoro’s transition into a peaceful region, a group monitoring subnational conflicts in the country said on Monday.

In its 2020 Bangsamoro Conflict Report, International Alert Philippines said a total of 2,655 violent conflict incidents occurred in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi in 2019. These five provinces comprise the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Clan feuds, fueled by personal and political grudges and land conflict, involved former combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). In 2019, thirteen clan feuds involved MILF-affiliated factions and caused the displacement of thousands.

“The irony is that previous combatants who ought to be retired from decommissioning and normalization processes are instead training their weapons against each other, against indigenous peoples, and against other claimants of land surrounding their previous camps,” said Nikki de la Rosa, country director of International Alert Philippines.

Although Bangsamoro experienced a decline in violent conflicts, the group also noted a drastic shift in performing acts of violent extremism in the region.

International Alert senior peace and conflict adviser Francisco Lara Jr. said a mix of female, Filipino, and foreign extremists perpetrated suicide bombings in the region, particularly in Sulu, in 2019. The report also included the two successive suicide attacks in Jolo last August, which resulted into 75 injuries and 14 fatalities.

Lara added ISIS-affiliated armed groups are continuously recruiting and regrouping in Lanao del Sur. Financial incentives are also being offered to lure new members to the BIFF.

“The suicide attacks reveal how the influence of ISIS has remained potent and that the attacks in August 2020 are not expected to be the last. There is a potential for suicide bombings to be reproduced in other parts of Mindanao, especially as security is tightened in Sulu,” said Lara.

The International Alert Philippines, which developed Conflict Report in monitoring subnational conflicts, also reported a 14% increase in illegal drug-related incidents in Bangsamoro in 2019. The increase covers all provinces except Basilan.

The report added the national government’s campaign against the illegal drug trade revealed new hotspots such as in the town of Buluan in Maguindanao province, where incidents doubled.

The use of handguns, the most common type of weapon in Bangsamoro region, also increased by 6% between 2018 and 2019, the report revealed. Handguns were used in illegal drug incidents, clan feuding, robberies, and during the 2019 elections. Violent extremists such as Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF used handguns to carry out assassinations.

“The rise in gun-related violence will certainly make it more difficult to convince former combatants to lay down their guns and render themselves vulnerable to personal attacks,” Lara said.

The group called for the crafting of a land adhering to a “strong, evidence-based and participatory and publicly accessible process” such as having a mechanism to settle land and property disputes, to prevent the escalation of violence in the region.

The organization recommended a better orchestrated approach in preventing violent extremism with a combination of capacity building in the deradicalization of the youth, implementation of restorative justice programs, more social media campaigns to prevent recruitment into extremist groups, and intensified intelligence gathering and security operations.

“One would expect that violence will less likely happen under the watch of the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) and BARMM, but peace takes a while to grow, and peace agreements hardly lead to a post-conflict future at once or at all,” explained Dela Rosa.

The BARMM celebrated its founding anniversary last week, a year after the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that created the autonomous regional government through a two-part plebiscite. Celebrations were done amidst a call by the MILF-led BTA for Congress to amend the BOL and allow a three-year extension of the transition process.