Firearm law can subvert the Bangsamoro disarmament process

The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Annex on Normalization on Jan. 25, 2014. The annex is an integral document to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) that spells out the process of integration to normal life of persons and communities affected by war.

A key activity in the normalization process is the demobilization of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the MILF’s military arm, and the decommissioning of its weapons.

The decommissioning process is envisaged to be completed in four phases: first, a ceremonial turnover of 75 high-powered firearms; second, decommissioning of 30% of MILF weapons and combatants; third, decommissioning of 35% of MILF weapons and combatants; and last, decommissioning of the remaining 35%.

Phase I has been completed with the turnover of 55 high-powered firearms and 20 crew-served weapons and demobilization of 145 MILF combatants in Sultan Kudarat (Maguindanao) on June 16.

The succeeding phases are dependent on the passage and ratification, through a plebiscite, of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Around these are the lingering questions: how many guns does the MILF/BIAF actually have? How many private armed groups (PAGs) in the Bangsamoro have to be dismantled? What to do with guns in the hands of communities that are not covered in the scope of the decommissioning process?

The 2013 International Alert study on illegal firearms (Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao edited by Francisco J. Lara Jr. and Steven Schoofs) highlights the following findings:

As of 2010, 2.8 million firearms were in the hands of civilians, of which 67% were loose or illegal firearms. In Mindanao, 492,268 firearms were in civilian hands, of which 73% were illegal.

Illegal firearms have been accumulating since World War II, which recirculated in the illicit markets.

Imported guns are weakly regulated, and coordination between the Firearms and Explosives Office (FEO) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Bureau of Customs is poor. From 2000 to 2010, 27,419 imported firearms did not appear on Customs’ reports and were at variance with data from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

State policies and regulations have failed to eliminate illegal firearms, despite recurring amnesties and other incentives.

Preventing the migration of legal firearms to the shadow economy has been difficult. As of October 2014, the FEO reported that of 1,697,450 registered gun holders, 597,707 had either expired licenses or fictitious registration details. At least 70,000 addresses of gun holders could not be located.

The unknown location and ownership of illegal firearms suggest the possibility of firearms being used in crime, insurgency and rebellion. The Alert study cites the convergence of the shadow economy in firearms to the sub-contracting of violence by local elites as typified in the Ampatuan Massacre in November 2009.

RA 10591
Republic Act (RA) No. 10591 or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act was approved by President Benigno S. C. Aquino III on May 29, 2013 while its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) was approved by then-PNP Chief Alan L. M. Purisima on Nov. 25, 2013. This law reiterates State policy to recognize the legal rights of citizens to own guns for the purpose of self-defense. (See Table 1)

The FEO is mandated to regulate legal firearms and control the proliferation of illegal firearms. The PNP does not have a mechanism purposively designed to eliminate illegal firearms. In fact, the law provides for the legalization of what is illegal through amnesty. (See Table 2)

The License To Own and Possess a Firearm already includes the license to own ammunition up to 50 rounds per firearm. But for a fee of P1,000, a licensed gun holder can register as a sports shooter, which would allow him/her to possess up to 1,000 rounds of ammunition. The law defines a sports shooter as a citizen who actively participates in sports shooting competitions. Anyone can pretend to be one but actually trade ammunition in the illicit market. (See Table 3)

RA 10591 was enacted into law after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro on Oct. 15, 2012 and before the signing of the CAB on March 27, 2014. Neither of the two agreements cite the law as a context that would influence the normalization and decommissioning processes. Nor was the law mentioned during the negotiations on the Annex on Normalization.

The provisions of the law will have the following effects:

Undermine the intention to demobilize MILF combatants and decommission their weapons. While decommissioning intends to reduce mobilizable weapons in the hands of the MILF/BIAF, the law offers a window for market-driven retention and proliferation. The financial incentives for decommissioning can be recycled by combatants to acquire, even import, and register new weapons.

Provide an escape route to avoid decommissioning. The government does not have a list of MILF and BIAF members and inventory of weapons. The law provides a final amnesty to include legalization of unregistered firearms. An MILF combatant or BIAF member can discreetly fade away as an ordinary civilian with an unregistered gun and apply for amnesty. Groups of combatants can also fade away, register themselves as a juridical entity (such as a corporation or a cooperative), and collectively and legally retain firearms.

Create a disincentive to cooperate in the normalization and decommissioning process. The MILF will likely avail itself of the same opportunities and guarantees that a private security agency gets if it is registered as a juridical entity.

Promote privatization of violence. Possession of weapons, including Class A Light Weapons, by individuals and juridical entities creates a gravitational force that could challenge or break the State’s monopoly of coercion; a power that cannot be simply tamed by a gun safety seminar that is a prerequisite to ownership.

The normalization process has three interrelated aspects: security, socioeconomic development, and transitional justice. The decommissioning of MILF forces and weapons forms part of the security aspect. The security aspect takes cognizance of the existence of PAGs.

In the agreement on normalization, the government and the MILF committed to the disbandment of PAGs as a priority. However, RA 10591 provides a way out by either becoming legal or, by the lack of a clear punitive mechanism, remaining in the shadow.

There can be no meaningful decommissioning if the Bangsamoro (and the whole country) is awash with illegal firearms. The government and the MILF cannot ignore guns in the hands of civilians, political elites, PAGs, bandits, and criminal syndicates. The MILF itself can avoid decommissioning by claiming its guns are owned by communities or non-combatants.

Eddie Quitoriano is a risk and conflict analyst and Consultant to International Alert’s Project “Building Legitimate Institutions for a Durable Peace: Minimizing Conflict Risks and Maximizing Peace Dividends in the Bangsamoro.” This article is related to his work with International Alert and Pailig Development Foundation on piloting community-based response to illegal firearms and strengthening relevant mechanisms and structures at the community level.

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