KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The difficult process of disarming Philippine Muslim rebels after a decades-long insurgency has started, negotiators said Sunday, with the decommissioning of a first batch of firearms expected before year-end.
Philippine government and Muslim rebel negotiators started meeting in Malaysia on Saturday to discuss the disarmament process, key to ending the insurgency in the country’s south and sealing a peace deal.
The two sides have appointed three foreign experts – from Brunei, Turkey and Norway – to join an independent body that will oversee the decommissioning process, together with four local experts who are yet to be nominated.
“Decommissioning is a delicate and difficult component of any peace settlement. It must be done effectively and sensitively,” chief Philippine government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement.
The meeting will continue until Monday.
Chief rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal had said earlier that 75 assorted firearms, including high-powered rifles, would be stored and padlocked in a warehouse as part of the “normalisation” process that will see the rebels trade their weapons for a chance to join mainstream society.
“Decommissioning firearms is really very difficult, but you have to undertake the ultimate sacrifice just to have the Bangsamoro,” Iqbal said.
Bangsamoro is the southern region on Mindanao island where the country’s Muslim minority will have self-rule under a pact they signed with President Benigno Aquino’s government in March.
The peace deal seeks to end four decades of fighting that left tens of thousands killed and stunted development in the mineral-rich area.
Ferrer had said that “the first order of business” for the meeting would be for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to submit a list of weapons and combatants.
Military estimates place the strength of the MILF at 10,000. The group has not disclosed the size of its force or the number of weapons in its arsenal.
Decommissioning will be phased, depending on the delivery of government commitments under the peace deal, Iqbal said.
Ferrer said there was enough “goodwill” to push through with normalisation after a bill that will grant the country’s Muslim minority self-rule was submitted to Congress earlier this month.
Legislators said the Bangsamoro bill had bipartisan support and would be passed early next year, giving Aquino time to set up an autonomous government before his term ends in mid-2016.