The BARMM ‘tinderbox’ | Rene Acosta





THE Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) runs the risk of being a “failed experiment,” unless its leadership made up mostly of former officials and commanders of the still existing Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will act fast to stop the violence and conflict gripping Central Mindanao.

During the past weeks, Maguindanao, in particular, the nerve center of the MILF, has recorded a spike in hostilities perpetrated by the province’s armed groups which should have been stopped, given the MILF officials’ promise years ago that creation of the BARMM would address Mindanao’s problems.

The flare-up of hostilities, which is impeaching the ability and credibility of former MILF officials to govern, was brought by a confluence of events and was influenced by political, economic, territorial control and even administration issues.

‘Ruptures’

A conflict monitoring group, International Alert Philippines, which maintains a strong presence in Mindanao, raised the alarming situation in BARMM in its security brief issued in February this year titled, “Internal Ruptures Within the Bangsamoro.”

It noted that the “run-up to the 2022 elections has seen a remarkable escalation in violence between and among actors least expected to be the source of uncertainty, instability and crisis in a region transitioning from conflict to peace.”

“The rupture is occurring within the ranks of armed groups that have entered into peace agreements with the government but not with their rivals,” it said.

The “intra and intergroup” violence is pitting the clans and armed followers of MILF commanders, “decommissioned or otherwise,” against each other.

“Not a week passes where there is no news about an MILF commander fighting or squaring off with the rival MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters,” the conflict-monitoring group said.

Documented incidents

IN buttressing its report, it cited the ambush-killing of MILF-Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) Inner Guard Commander Peges Lentagi Mamasainged and eight of his men in Guindulungan, Maguindanao, on February 12. Mamasainged’s cousin, Jordan Mama Lintang alias Commander Jordan of MNLF, led the suspects.

Conflict Alert noted that the ambush site was located within the “perimeter area” of Camp Bader, a known camp of the MILF that straddles the towns of Guindulungan, Talayan and Datu Unsay.

“These camps are supposed to be the beacons of the peaceful transition from conflict where massive infrastructure and development investments are being poured by development banks and bilateral and multilateral aid agencies,” it said.

On February 7, another hours-long clash occurred, involving MILF commanders Jun Barang and Gringo and their men at Barangay Senditan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, and forcing the evacuation of 300 people.

On the night of February 10, both groups fought again until the morning of the following day in the tri-boundaries of Cotabato City, Sultan Mastura and Sultan Kudarat, which Conflict Alert said became more violent and destructive as several houses were looted and destroyed.

The clashes were not isolated as encounters involving MILF commanders have become the focus of conflict monitoring in Maguindanao and its borders with Lanao del Sur and Cotabato beginning in the second half of last year.

“Ruptures between kinship networks and former comrades-in-arms are often propelled by enduring land conflicts between MILF commanders, between MILF and MNLF commanders, and between MILF and other armed groups of indigenous peoples and settlers,” Conflict Alert said.

The violence involving armed groups in the province was aggravated by political feuds involving politicians in Maguindanao, notably in Guindulungan, Datu Piang, Shariff Aguak, Datu Paglas and Cotabato City.

Another battle in Talitay, Maguindanao, concerned control over political office in the town and the province of Maguindanao, as well as control over the “illicit trade and distribution of illicit drugs.”

A violent clan feud was reignited in March 2021 between the late former Mayor Montasir Sabal and a rival clan associated with the MILF that displaced about 700 families or 3,500 individuals.

The massive displacement prompted the Council of Talitay to declare the area under a state of calamity.

Montasir was later arrested in the government’s anti-drugs war and killed inside a police vehicle while being transported from Batangas City to Camp Crame after he allegedly tried to grab the gun of a police escort.

The Ministry of Interior and Local Government of the BARMM appointed Acting Vice-Mayor Moner Sabal as the new mayor of Talitay. Moner Sabal, however, failed to show up in his office to perform his duties.

Stalemate

Maguindanao Gov. Bai Mariam Mangudadatu of the powerful Mangudadatu political clan appointed Talitay Municipal Councilor Fahad Midtimbang to act as mayor.

The replacement order heightened tensions between the provincial governor and the MILF leadership in the BARMM.

Minister Naguib Sinarimbo of BARMM opposed the governor’s decision and a stalemate remains.

“Since August 24, 2021, Moner Sabal has remained as the de jure mayor, though Fahad Midtimbang is effectively exercising the duties of his office,” Conflict Alert said.

The conflict-monitoring group warned the feud is something that should be watched keenly as rivalries intensify between “armed groups at various levels.”

It noted that the governor is identified with the Ampatuan clan and is allied with former Sultan Kudarat Governor Pax Mangudadatu.

“Gov. Bai Mariam’s competitor for the provincial post of Maguindanao represents the other side of the Mangudadatu clan headed by Rep. Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu, allied with the MILF. The two clans also vie for the gubernatorial seat of Sultan Kudarat, with the son of Gov. Bai Mariam, Datu Ali Pax Mangudadatu, incumbent mayor of Datu Abdullah Sangki town in Maguindanao, running against the wife of Rep. Mangudadatu, Sharifa Akeel,” it said.

The election factor

THE situation was complicated by the Commission on Elections decision to cancel the certificate of candidacy of Mayor Mangudadatu for alleged lack of residency.

The mayoral race in Cotabato City and in Datu Piang also added to the current political strains in the province.

“It is important to understand that these tensions are partly the outcome of a twist in the political posturing of the MILF leadership regarding local elections,” Conflict Alert said.

“Having convinced President Duterte to agree to a postponement of the BARMM elections due to electoral unpreparedness and the unfinished business of transitional governance, the MILF promptly turned around to actively participate in the midterm elections by using their clout, influence and resources to support rival candidates that did not subscribe to their demand for no-elections at the Bangsamoro,” it added.

International Alert said that tensions and conflicts are not only limited to the politicians and members of armed groups in Bangsamoro, but also include non-Moro indigenous communities who were allegedly bullied by the MILF, MNLF and another armed group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

“There has been no respite in reported cases of intimidation and harassment against the Teduray and other non-Islamized indigenous groups by armed groups associated with the MILF,” it said, noting the presence of armed men in coastal areas of Maguindanao, particularly in Datu Blah Sinsuat, where the MILF is reportedly “intensifying its recruitment and expansion in the area,” causing concern among indigenous residents.

It recalled reporting in October last year that armed groups with links to MILF Commanders Micro and Bulantoy have been forcing the Teduray in Barangay Kuya and Barangay Jordan in South Upi to join a “cooperative” being organized in the area.

“Local sources have reported that the organization of a cooperative is only part of a bigger scheme for the armed groups to qualify as beneficiaries under the BARMM development programs,” it said.

“Apart from these onerous attempts to corner development funds in the name of the indigenous peoples, local leaders have also been targeted by the BIFF in numerous cases involving land in South Upi, Maguindanao and Lebak, Sultan Kudarat,” it added.

Image credits: Liskonogaleksey | Dreamstime.com





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