‘Balik-loob’ BIFF commanders thank PH Army, appeal for continued government aid

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RADJAH BUAYAN, MAGUINDANAO — Living in extremely insecure conditions and an environment stricken with poverty and uncertainty, several commanders and troops of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have come to the fold, responding to government calls for giving up arms.

In the past few years, hundreds of these Bangsamoro fighters had decided to put an end to violence and explored reintegration processes into civilian communities. 82 fighters including top brass commander, Hajji Alimodin Malang a.k.a. ‘Kumander Malang,’ entered an agreement with the government and pledged loyalty through the holy Qur’an. He turned himself in through the 33rd Infantry Battalion in the 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.

Malang and his group expressed their gratitude and appreciation to the officers and troops of the battalion headed by Lt. Col. Elmer Boongaling. According to him, the Army didn’t fall short of its commitment and promise to bring them back and help facilitate voluntary ‘balik-loob’ procedures. 

Transformed Philippine Army

In an interview, Malang highlighted the fact that the Army forces now is totally different from the Army forces he knew about from several decades ago. Primarily, military threats during Martial Law years caused him and his neighbors to join the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1972 and, later on, in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 

At age 13, there was no talk of idealism and equality. Malang and his friends ran away from the community and associated themselves with the rebel group out of fear from the military — fear of being abused and eventually killed, like many others.

They chose to live in hiding than to die from the hands of the military while tending their farms.

“Mahirap talaga ang buhay sa bundok habang nagtatago. Walang kasiguruhan,” said Malang. 

(It was really difficult to live in hiding in the mountains. It was all uncertainty).

“Ang militar noon, pinagbabaril kami. Patatakbuhin ka at babarilin. Kaya kami sumama sa MNLF,” he recalled.

(The military then, they shoot at us. They make you run and they shoot. That’s why we joined the MNLF).

Malang added that times had changed and he and his men appreciated how the Philippine Army has been transformed.

“Tinutulungan nila kami ngayon at talagang nagpapasalamat kami sa Army. Malaki ang pagkakaiba ng buhay namin ngayon, lupa at langit. Masarap na ngayon, malaya na kami,” he added.

(We are thankful to the Philippine Army for helping us. It’s really different now, like heaven and earth. We enjoy life. We are free.)

Malang added that he appreciates the support and effort of the government, however, in their current conditions, they need more help. He hopes that whatever the government is capable of giving, they would get it sooner.

“Malaki din ang pasasalamat namin sa gobyerno sa tulong nila noon pero sa ngayon, kung anuman ang kayang ibigay ng gobyerno, sana makuha na namin ngayon,” he added.

(We appreciate the help of government before but whatever the government can give, we hope to get it now.)

Another BIFF Commander, Moadz Sambutawan, said he and his family are thankful to the Army. From living a fearful life, he now earns a living through fishing. On the other hand, Commander Waziri Talib Kumpas is happy to be reunited with family and now sends his son to school. He said he tells his son not to follow his footsteps and encouraged him to join the Philippine Army.

“Mahirap ang buhay namin doon sa Freedom [BIFF]. Kaya naisip kong magbalik loob ako kasi kung hindi, baka yun din mangyari sa anak ko,” said Kumpas.

(Life is difficult in BIFF. That’s why I decided to return because if I don’t, same thing might happen to my son.)

Allan Saligan, who was with the BIFF command for around 5 years, said he chose to experience freedom that’s why he turned his loyalty to the government. He joined BIFF when he was 15 years old. He turned himself in in December 2019 and now catches fish to earn a living.

Moadz Sambutawan and 7 other BIFF fighters surrendered their firearms to 33rd Infantry Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Elmer Boongaling on March 30, 2020. (Photo: Philippine Army)


BARMM support

Close to a year after giving up their firearms and reintegrating into their respective communities in Maguindanao, Malang and his men are yet to enjoy full support from the local and national government. At the time of their submission to government troops, the provincial government of Maguindanao provided assistance through cash and food support. Each also received ‘kuliglig’ — a transport system used to haul farm products. They received bags of rice for subsistence.

On the other hand, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) government provided skills training support where former rebels were trained in rescue operations. Under the program, they received a monthly stipend of 5,000 pesos each. The program ended in December 2019. 

According to an official from the Ministry of Interior and Local Government (MILG) of BARMM, who had asked not to disclose his identity, processes are being undertaken to continue the program this year. Due to restrictions and limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the program for 2020 is yet to begin.

The reintegration program covers not only the rebel returnees themselves but also their respective families who have been severely affected by the decades-long arms struggle. In these unique conditions, however, families have difficulty going back to their old communities due to ongoing clan wars called ‘rido,’ a very common phenomenon in Muslim communities in the country, complicating further the reintegration process.

The BARMM government currently maintains a strong partnership with the Philippine Army and supports the Army’s community support program. In 2020, the continuation of BARMM’s Project Tugon will cover a more comprehensive subsidy with cash assistance and skills training addressing the needs of the returnees. These efforts involve other government agencies including the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

BARMM and the local government units are committed to make this work but for Malang and his group, they long for urgent, continued government support. For the many years they’ve spent in hiding, more time is required for them to fully reintegrate and to provide for their families on their own. While minimal food support was provided in the earlier weeks of the pandemic, it seemed government provision had ceased.

The government’s stand is for these fighters to return to civilian living not because they already ran out of options but to express, on their own volition, a desire to be loyal to the government. While these are ideal scenarios, it may not be necessarily applicable to the situations of some BIFF warriors.

According to Malang, if the government is able  to show a better program on the ‘balik-loob’ process, more BIFF fighters are willing to join them. His dream is for his grandchildren to lead better lives and hold on to bigger hopes for a better future. He hopes to avail of government scholarships for his grandchildren.

For Boongaling, the fear of these fighters going back to old ways, up in arms against the government remains should the government fail in its reintegration plans. While more and more BIFF leaders and troops are considering giving up their firearms, government reintegration programs should be strong enough to cater to their needs. 

“The reintegration program is fragmented and not yet fully institutionalized. BARMM and the local governments are very supportive but the government has yet to put together a complete package to be able to bring them back to their communities,” said Boongaling.

The Army commander likewise explained that their efforts of assisting the returnees only comprise a small part of the task and a huge part is still missing. 

“Our role of encouraging them to return to the government takes only 25% of the work and the bigger challenge is how to fully reintegrate them into their communities. That is what’s missing right now and if we are not able to sustain this, there’s a big chance of them going back [to BIFF],” he added.

For returnees like Malang, Sambutawan, Kumpas and Saligan, what is important is they enjoy the kind of freedom they never had, closer to their families. While they struggle to face a new battle of providing food for their wives and children, they continue to choose freedom over violent fighting. Due to current conditions which are being worsened by this public health crisis, desperate measures are imminent. 

The MILG official said they’re giving assurance to returnees that more support are on its way; and that they are determined to make the plan actually work. 

A call for help

Meantime, Kumander Malang pleads for immediate support and at a point of desperately seeking help. 

Kumander Kumpas, on the other hand, had given up his ‘kuliglig’ and a small parcel of farmland to make ends meet. He said he couldn’t keep them as he did not have the necessary training, farming tools and equipment.

“Baka pwede ninyo kaming tulungan na makausap si Presidente Duterte o kung sino mang matataas na opisyal sa kongreso o sa senado,” Malang pleaded.

(Maybe you can help us talk to President Duterte or any official from Congress or the Senate.)

With the Army’s commitment to facilitate more balik-loob returnees coming into the fold, the question remains — how long can they last without full reintegration support before making that decision of going back to terrorist base?

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