By Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
Deadly violence is likely to go on in the southern Philippines despite the expected congressional passage of a law giving minority Muslims expanded autonomy, a regional militant group warned Wednesday.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters does not recognize the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which Congress is fine-tuning for signing by the president next month, BIFF spokesman Abu Misri Mama said.
“We are not in favor of autonomy. That’s the reason why we left in the MILF in the first place,” Mama told BenarNews. “We will continue to fight for independence. The island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed.”
The BIFF, with an armed force numbering in the hundreds, is a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which dropped its bid for independence and signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
The long-delayed basic law (BBL) is supposed to provide the legal framework for an expanded autonomy in Mindanao, the country’s main southern third that has been mired in a cycle of violence since the 1970s.
Mama said BIFF did “not want to do anything with the BBL” because “Mindanao is ours and should be ours.”
“We will fight until the end,” Mama added. “God willing.”
The BIFF broke away from the 12,000-strong MILF in 2008, taking with it more radical, younger fighters. The group has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but did not contribute fighters when IS Filipino leader Isnilon Hapilon and gunmen aligned with him laid siege to the southern city of Marawi last year, unleashing a five-month battle with the Philippine military that left 1,200 people – mostly militants – dead.
The vicious fighting ended in October with the death of Hapilon and his top lieutenants, although the military has said that dozens of fighters, possibly including foreigners, had escaped to areas in the south where BIFF members operate.
In recent weeks, BIFF forces in the south intensified their attacks, targeting military positions with bomb attacks. In May, the group remotely detonated a homemade bomb outside a Roman Catholic Church in the southern city of Koronadal, leaving two civilians wounded.
MILF still hopeful
But MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said he remained hopeful that legislators could hammer out a consolidated version of the proposed law that is acceptable to his group.
He had earlier said that the final versions passed by the Senate and House of Representatives appeared to have diluted some of provisions sought by the MILF, including those about taxation, governance and the coverage of the autonomous region.
“The versions of Congress and Senate are not yet final. We are hoping that we will have a strong and good final version of the law,” Iqbal said.
Iqbal said the BBL, which was envisioned to outline the basic structure of a proposed autonomy in Mindanao, and the final version would likely have some inputs from the office of President Rodrigo Duterte, who also hails from Mindanao.
“Experts are saying the bicameral committee meeting is the third chamber of Congress. Meaning, they can still do several changes to improve the bill,” Iqbal said.
“But let’s continue to pray for us to achieve a better law. We in the MILF assures to work for it for us to have a genuine peace, development and justice,” he said.
Duterte had earlier certified the BBL as urgent, and had asked legislators to speed up its final version because he wanted to sign it into law by July before delivering his annual State of the Nation address.
MILF guerrilla leader Wahid Tundok, who commands a large number of fighters, last year warned that the former separatists could launch a siege larger than that of the Marawi attack if the law was not passed.
The predominantly Christian bloc in Congress has been wary of passing the BBL and giving minority Muslims powers to govern their own territory in the south, arguing that it could lead to trouble.
In 2015, congressmen held up the passage of the BBL after MILF guerrillas killed 44 police commandos in a rebel-held zone in the south during a police operation to hunt down Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan).
The police commandos successfully killed Marwan, but were caught up in a gun battle with MILF forces, who said later that they thought another rebel force was attacking them.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.