By Anthony Davis
Three decades of insurgency in the southern Philippines have left the region awash with unregulated firearms that constitute a threat to security in their own right. The region is now one of the most heavily armed areas in Southeast Asia, and is certainly one of its least secure.
Once a by-product of the conflict, the proliferation of small-arms has today become a central factor behind chronic instability and the growth of crime and terrorism both in Mindanao and beyond.
Insurgent forces account for a significant proportion of loose firearms. At its height in the late 1970s the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the leading separatist faction, numbered some 21,000 guerrillas. Since it made peace with the government in 1996, the MNLF has fractured politically and ceased to be an effective military force, but most of its arsenal of small arms remains scattered across Mindanao. The breakaway MILF, founded in 1984, today fields some 12,000 fighters. The criminally inclined Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is far smaller at around 400 armed insurgents - but significantly, when in the aftermath of the Sipadan hostage crisis of 2000 the ASG was flush with cash, it had no difficulty expanding its forces to nearly 1,000 well-armed guerrillas. Mindanao-based forces of the communist New People's Army, meanwhile, account for around 3,000 armed guerrillas.
The proliferation of loose weaponry has stemmed from four main sources. One of the most important has been the logistics pipelines from overseas run by the separatist MNLF and the breakaway MILF, based mainly among the Maguindanao and Maranao populations of south-central Mindanao.
The 1970s saw the first and largest influx of modern weaponry into Mindanao. At the outset of the insurgency this included several thousand Libyan-donated Belgian FN-FAL 7.62mm rifles, as well as 60mm and 81mm mortars and Soviet-manufactured RPG-2 rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Libya also facilitated the supply of Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, although only a few hundred of a much larger shipment ever reached the MNLF.
However, both insurgent and government forces have fought overwhelmingly with US-manufactured weapons rather than the communist-bloc equipment used in the Cold War cockpits of Cambodia and Afghanistan. It remains to be confirmed but it is probable that both the MNLF and the MILF were able to import supplies of US materiel abandoned in Vietnam after the communist victory of 1975 and later sold onto the international arms market.
Other reported sources of imported weaponry have been North Korea and the black market in southern Thailand.
While external shipments have contributed significantly to small-arms proliferation in Mindanao, evidence is compelling that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) themselves have played a scarcely less important role. To a minor degree this has involved the capture of weapons by rebel forces in encounters. Far more, however, it stems from widespread sales of munitions by corrupt elements in the AFP to dealers who then sell to insurgents or criminals.
A third source of weaponry used on Mindanao has been local MILF production. MILF production facilities, manned by skilled gunsmiths have been turning out copies of the RPG-2, the American M-79 grenade launcher and .45 calibre pistol as well as crude anti-personnel mines and bombs.
Finally, limited quantities of firearms are reaching Mindanao from Luzon and the Visayas in what represents essentially a spillover from the thriving arms black-market in the northern Philippines.
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