Philippine Muslim rebels want to keep guns
After watching two of his brothers die during four decades of fighting in the southern Philippines, Muslim rebel Abdulhamid Ganalan feels a planned peace deal could be surrender.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders are set to sign an accord with the government on Monday that will aim to end the rebellion by 2016, but the guerrilla said he and his subordinates did not want to give up their arms.
“I will not agree. That is like full surrender,” Ganalan told reporters from inside Camp Darapanan, the MILF’s administrative headquarters, when asked whether he would lay down his weapons as part of a peace accord.
Ganalan, who is a senior member of an MILF elite security detail guarding rebel chief Murad Ebrahim, said he had invested all his life in the rebellion and years of fierce fighting had taught him one lesson.
“There is no surrender,” said Ganalan, who is in his 50s and whose wiry battle-scarred body is a testament to hard living on the war zone.
Ganalan said he and other rebels among the 12,000-strong MILF force had not yet learnt about the details of the agreement with the government, which President Benigno Aquino announced to international applause last weekend.
The “framework agreement” for peace would create a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines, which Muslims regard as their ancestral homeland predating Spanish and Christian colonisation that began in the 1500s.
As part of the deal, the MILF would give up its quest for an independent homeland in parts of the southern region of Mindanao, which makes up about a third of the Philippines.
Its soldiers would also be “decommissioned”, although no details on how and when they would lay down their array of weapons – ranging from second world war-era guns to M-16s and rocket propelled grenades – were spelled out.
During a long conversation this week in Camp Darapanan, where rebels and their families live inside a sprawling compound of coconut groves and corn fields, Ganalan said on the one hand he would respect the MILF elders’ decision on the peace deal.
But Ganalan also expressed deep reservations about giving up a dream of independence that he had fought for so long to achieve and which he said was justified in the Koran.
“Regardless of whoever tells us what to do, if it goes against the Koran, we will not surrender,” Ganalan said.
Ganalan joined the rebel ranks as a young boy in the early 1970s along with five older brothers in response to a call to fight for an independent Islamic state.
They were cadres of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first organised rebel force to wage war with the government in what became an enduring insurgency that has so far left an estimated 150,000 people dead.
The MNLF, however, dropped its bid for independence and eventually signed a peace pact with Manila in 1996 for autonomy.
Ganalan joined a faction of rebels that split from the MNLF in 1977 to push ahead with the secession, and the group later became known as the MILF.
But the MILF also began exploring possibilities in the late 1990s of its own pact with the government, resulting in ceasefires that have largely kept the peace for nearly a decade and led to Monday’s planned peace roadmap.
Even if peace is achieved, Ganalan and his wife retold stories of war that have caused emotional scars impossible to heal.
His wife, Norah Ibrahim, said one of Ganalan’s two brothers killed in the fighting was mutilated, and his severed head found stuffed in a pail.
Norah said their two children, now in their 20s, were also MILF fighters.
She said she hoped the deal could eventually mean fighting would stop, allowing her to see her family more often and help her tend a small shop.
But she too believed the men should not be stripped of their weapons, arguing guns were a way of life in Mindanao, where more than four million Muslims live.
“A Bangsamoro (Muslim) is always ready to fight,” she said.
Guns, she said, were necessary for protection against revenge killings common among Muslim clans, or against other armed groups that have sprouted in poverty-wracked Mindanao as an indirect consequence of the insurgency.
MILF brigade chief Guiazakallaha Jaafar, 28, who boasts of 3,000 fighters under his command, said he and his men believed their leaders would not order them disarmed without consensus from key officers.
He likened himself to “a fighting cock without spurs” if he no longer had a weapon.
Jaafar said they would consent to be transformed into a police force or a special militia unit under the envisioned MILF autonomy.
“They can make us into a police force, or village watchers, even militia units. But they can not just take away our guns,” he said.