Peace dividends: Economic, social projects inspire local terror group members to give up arms

By John M. Unson, Correspondent  

COTABATO CITY More than 70 members of local terrorist groups have laid down their arms in recent weeks, inspired by comrades who have surrendered earlier and are now living peaceful, productive lives back in their communities.   

Alim Kitem Ansao, one of the 50 members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) who pledged allegiance to the government on May 12 at the Bangsamoro police regional headquarters, said he and his two siblings agreed to surrender after learning that their village in Midsayap, Cotabato was one of the beneficiaries of multi-million farming equipment grants from the Bangsamoro government. 

“We were told by BIFF recruiters in 2017 that we have to fight the government because it is only good at making the lives of Muslims in Mindanao difficult,he said in an interview on Wednesday.   

We realized they were wrong when we started hearing about the construction of barangay (village) halls and roads by the Bangsamoro government. It was then we started planning secretly to surrender to the police and so it happened indeed,Mr. Ansao said in the Maguindanaon language. 

One of Mr. Ansaos companions, Badruddin Sangid Mongkas, said he agreed to surrender, with the help of Muslim preachers in Maguindanao del Sur, after learning that three of his cousins have returned to their home village after availing of livelihood support from the agriculture, local government and social welfare ministries of the Bangsamoro government.  

“I then heard each of them are now earning clean money from corn farming, enough for their schooling and other needs. They are back in high school and want to proceed to college, if possible,” Mr. Mongkas said.  

Nine of the BIFF surrenderees were trained in making improvised explosive devices by the Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, according to Bangsamoro Police Regional Director Allan C. Nobleza.  

Marwan was killed in a clash with pursuing personnel of the police’s elite Special Action Force (SAF) in Mamasapano on Jan. 25, 2015, an incident that also left 44 SAF personnel, 13 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and four villagers dead.   

Hassan Samarudin Tantung, one of the bomb-makers, said what encouraged him to surrender was the construction of a barangay hall in their village at the border of Pigcawayan, Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao del Norte. 

“There was no barangay justice system in our place before. Surely there will soon be with this barangay hall existing there now,he said.  

His father also received a small, motorized boat with fishing equipment, which he now uses in the pawas, the local term for marsh which generally refers to the resource-rich 220,000-hectare Liguasan Delta. 

Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Taliño Mendoza said she is expecting the surrender soon of more BIFF and Dawlah Islamiya members in isolated barangays that used to be under her province and are now part the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).    

“I support all of these socio-economic programs of BARMM in its 63 barangays in my province because an increase in the rice and corn production in these areas will also bring progress to the main trading centers in the towns where these barangays belong,” she said.  

Ms. Mendoza, a Christian, has been a staunch supporter of Malacañangs separate peace deals with the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front.  

The MNLF and the MILF have large communities in the 63 BARMM barangays in Cotabato, now grouped together as the Bangsamoro Special Geographic Area (SGA).   

Residents of the SGA voted in favor of the inclusion of their barangays into BARMM’s core territory in a plebiscite in early 2019.  

Army 6th Infantry Batallion Commander Alex S. Rillera said while there are still a few remaining hardcore BIFF members, the national and Bangsamoro governmentsprojects have significantly helped them secure the surrender of almost 300 BIFF and Dawlah Islamiya members since 2020. 

“When our men in the field convinced them to surrender, they used as examples how Malacañang and the BARMM governments, the municipal and provincial officials in provinces that we cover had cooperated in ushering those who surrendered ahead of them back to their barangays,” he said.