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Violent incidents in Bangsamoro continue to decline, but land ownership sparks new tensions

VIOLENT incidents in the Bangsamoro continued to decline in 2019, the first year of the transition period under the new regional government, according to International Alert Philippines’ latest conflict report released Monday.

The organization’s conflict monitoring system recorded 2,655 violent incidents in 2019, down 9% from 2,910 in 2018. In the two previous years, violent incidents stood at 4,363 and 4,140 in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The decline was sustained in the first half of 2020 as restrictions were imposed to contain the coronavirus outbreak, based on the report titled Conflict Alert 2020: Enduring Wars.

International Alert Philippines Country Director Nikki C. de la Rosa, however, warned of the continued “many pockets and corners” of clan feuds and disputes over resources, especially land.

The monitoring system covers the five Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, including the cities of Cotabato and Isabela.

“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. The combatants who lived in these camps desire permanent rights and ownership and these claims are now exacerbating tensions in the post-conflict normalization process,” Ms. De la Rosa said during an online briefing.

Under the peace agreement signed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government, which paved the way for the establishment of the BARMM, the former rebel group’s camps will be transformed into civilian communities while its combatants will be decommissioned and reintegrated over a three-year period ending in 2022.

“This period of transition-induced violence bears watching and the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) must act on land related conflicts as a first priority,” said Ms. De la Rosa.

The peacebuilding organization also cited the emergence of a “new form” and more deadly religious extremism, particularly in Sulu, which has remained a stronghold of the Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group.

Three suicide bombings were carried out in Sulu in 2019 and 2020, with a combined death toll of 46 and more than 75 others wounded.

International Alert Senior Peace and Conflict Adviser Francisco Lara, Jr., pointed out that these attacks were perpetrated by female, Filipino, and foreign extremists, all with Abu Sayyaf ties.

Meanwhile, International Alert supports pushing through with next year’s elections, seeing it as a platform to strengthen the legitimacy of the new BARMM government that is currently dominated by the MILF.

“We think that it will help strengthen the political legitimacy of the current BTA if there is an election… especially since we all know that during the plebiscite large areas of the Bangsamoro also demonstrated their disagreement with being part of the Bangsamoro. We’re talking about Sulu… Cotabato City,” Mr. Lara said.

“We are also confident that the MILF can win an election in 2022. It’s been shown in historical trends that those people who are in power and those who receive the support of the national government and different development organizations have always been able to hold on to political authority,” he added.

The MILF has established its political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), to serve as vehicle for its participation in local and national elections.

Mr. Lara also said that a postponement of the BARMM election, which is provided under the Bangsamoro Organic Law, should go through the proper process and is authorized by Congress. — Marifi S. Jara

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