Roundup: Philippines starts reintegrating former rebels into society

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MANILA, Sept. 8 (Xinhua) -- The Philippines has started the reintegration of former rebels into the society, a move Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said will bring "lasting peace" in the southern Philippine Mindanao region.

On Saturday, the chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, handed over an assault rifle to Duterte at the start of a decommissioning ceremony in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat in the southern Philippine Maguindanao province.

Murad said the the assault rifle was "a token" by MILF for its "very strong appreciation for what (Duterte) has done to the Bangsamoro people and our homeland."

The decommissioning process of 1,060 MILF combatants is the implementation of the "normalization" of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). The first batch is part of the 12,000 or 30 percent of the 40,000 MILF-Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) members to be decommissioned until March or April next year.

The decommissioning also includes 920 weapons and about 20 "heavy weapons" of the MILF, including over 600 rounds for the 7 rocket launchers.

Duterte lauded the "significant progress" in the implementation of the CAB, including the normalization that covers the decommissioning process.

"This is indeed a huge step towards our goal of achieving lasting peace for Mindanao," Duterte said in a speech on Saturday night. "Let us celebrate this milestone."

Duterte assured the MILF combatants "that the government will assist you as you reintegrate into society and enjoy fruitful and productive civilian lives."

"I look forward to having you as government's partners as we take further strides in securing lasting peace and order in Mindanao," Duterte added.

"Let us set aside our differences and avoid further armed conflict," Duterte said, assuring the BARMM, the MILF, and the people of Mindanao that "this administration will always listen to your grievances."

Duterte urged "all concerned stakeholders to continue working with government so that our gains for many years of peace-building efforts will never go to waste."

Under the normalization track, the combatants, their families and communities will receive a comprehensive socio-economic package which includes social protection package, sustainable livelihood programs, capacity-building trainings, health benefits and educational assistance.

Through these interventions, it is envisioned that the ex-fighters will be able to return to mainstream society, and the six government acknowledged MILF camps and communities will be transformed into peaceful, productive and resilient communities.

Saturday's decommissioning ceremony took place seven months after the organic law for BARMM was ratified in a plebiscite.

Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez said the decommissioning of MILF combatants and firearms will be done in eight other areas in Mindanao until March or April next year.

"The decommissioning is our first in achieving our goal to return our combatants to civilian but productive life," BARMM Chief Minister Murad said.

Since 1997, the government and the MILF have engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations on a settlement and political arrangement that would provide substantial autonomy to Muslims in Mindanao and put an end to the decades-old military conflict that started in the late 1960s.

About 150,000 people have died in the conflict over several decades and stunted development in the resource-rich Mindanao region that is the country's poorest.

The MILF led by Murad gave up its demand for a separate Muslim state in exchange for a substantial autonomy. In 2014, it signed a peace deal, CAB, with the government that led to the creation of BARMM.

The BARMM consists of the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, and the cities of Cotabato, Marawi and Lamitan, and 63 villages in six North Cotabato towns. Enditem

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