CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (June 7, 2024) – The national government’s peace mechanisms are strengthening their partnership with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly under the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) and other members of the security sector in an effort to more effectively address the proliferation of loose firearms in the Bangsamoro region.

This focus on collaborative efforts was the central theme during the AFP Brigade Commanders’ Forum on the Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) Management Program held here on Friday, June 7.

The forum, convened by the Joint Normalization Committee-Government of the Philippines (JNC-GPH), in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the Government of Japan, brought together top AFP officials under the Wesmincom to discuss collaborative strategies on how to best implement the OPAPRU’s SALW Management Program.

Rooted in peace agreements

The SALW Program is among the key security components of the Annex on Normalization under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). The JNC is responsible for leading the program’s implementation.

“Normalization is one of the main focus of the campaign of the Wesmincom. At alam natin na ang workshop natin about SALW…hindi ito stand alone na SALW. We are actually hitting the four major areas of the Normalization, not only the security sphere,” said JNC-GPH Co-chair Ariel Hernandez.

“When we talk about SALW, we cannot help but also touch on rido settlements. We cannot help but touch on the decommissioning and we cannot help but talk about DPAGs. Itong apat ay mutually reinforcing ang mga ‘yan,” Hernandez added.

In 2020, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace and Reconciliation Unity (OPAPRU) forged an alliance with Provincial Local Government Units (PLGUs) within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which laid the groundwork for the localized implementation of the SALW Program.

Building upon this partnership, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in collaboration with the JNC, developed and rolled out the Assistance for Security, Peace, Integration and Recovery for Advancing Human Security in BARMM (ASPIRE) SALW Project on October 5, 2023 in Basilan, which is expected to be replicated in other BARMM areas in the succeeding months.

“Ang isang importanteng gusto kung product ng workshop natin will not just be another documentation. Package the output of this workshop to proactively engage the national government. Again, dagdag pondo sa SALW. Malaki-laking trabaho talaga, malaki-laking pondo ang kailangan,” Hernandez added.

Cooperative security for long-term stability

While the forum acknowledged the importance of using a multifaceted approach, it also noted the challenges that remain, which include the possession of unlicensed firearms in the BARMM.

Western Mindanao Commander, LtGen William Gonzales highlighted the need to have a strong focus on enhancing coordination among members of the security sector in the region.

Gonzales stressed that this move would involve increased collaboration between the military, police, and other security agencies in BARMM to minimize disruption to civilian life, and coordinate efforts to dismantle illegal arms networks using an approach that respects human rights.

For OPAPRU Presidential Assistant David Diciano, the national government has recognized the need for long-term peacebuilding efforts that promote non-violent conflict resolution.

This strategy will include peace education initiatives and economic development programs, while fostering a culture of dialogue and understanding.

Another challenge identified during the forum is the interconnectedness of private armed groups (PAGs), clan feuds (rido), and the drug trade in creating a culture of creating fear, animosity and violence, which are exacerbated by the proliferation of loose firearms.

According to GPH Peace Implementing Panel Chair Cesar Yano, there is a need for a comprehensive approach that tackles these peace and security issues holistically.

Yano pointed out that this can be done through the implementation of programs and projects that address poverty, social injustice, and historical grievances alongside the SALW Program.

Building trust and encouraging dialogue

The forum also recognized the importance of building trust in communities within BARMM.
GPH-Joint Peace and Security Committee (JPSC) Co-chair MGen Francisco Ariel Felicidario III (Ret) emphasized that military-led interventions may include carrying out community outreach programs and engaging with civil society organizations, while fostering a greater sense of peace and security among residents by encouraging conflict resolution.

For his part, Head of Cotabato Field Office of UNDP, Winston Aylmer Camarinas shared ASPIRE’s strategies to incentivize individuals with loose firearms to actively participate in the SALW program.
Camarinas said the initiative could offer alternative livelihood opportunities and promote dialogue and mediation mechanisms to address underlying grievances in the region.

Basilan’s success: A model for collaborative security

Brigadier General Alvin V. Luzon PA, Commander of the 101st Infantry Brigade, presented Basilan’s experience in implementing the SALW Program during the forum.

Luzon highlighted the critical role of collaborative security measures, which involves the “military working together with local government units, other stakeholders, and the Basileño people themselves in a way that respects human rights and promotes long-term stability.”

Basilan’s successful implementation of the SALW Program in collecting and disposing over 1,500 loose firearms has served as a model on how multi-stakeholder efforts can contribute to the SALW Program’s effectiveness.

A unified front for a peaceful BARMM

Presidential Peace Adviser Secretary Carlito G. Galvez, Jr., in his message read by OPAPRU Senior Undersecretary Isidro L. Purisima during the forum, commended the Provincial Government of Basilan for being an excellent model in the implementation of the SALW Program.

“Basilan has shown a remarkable willingness to be the pilot province for both the ASPIRE Program and the Localized Normalization Initiative Program. This strong commitment and proactive stance of Basilan serves as a beacon of hope and benchmark for other provinces to follow,” Galvez said.

“We have all been witness to the culture of violence that has claimed innocent lives and destroyed once beautiful and thriving communities. All of these crimes were perpetrated by those who wield firearms, with most of them unlicensed,” he added.

“Through the ASPIRE project, it is our hope that we shall be able to vastly improve the peace and security conditions in the BARMM, as we accelerate the implementation of the Normalization Program,” Galvez noted.

“The AFP’s involvement in facilitating the collection and securing the storage of firearms has significantly enhanced the project’s effectiveness. It is worth noting that many groups and individuals surrender their firearms to the AFP, which reflect the full trust and confidence that communities have with our men and women in uniform,” he stressed. ###