MANILA - Where they would never have set foot before, they were welcomed with open arms as guests.
At least 40 former members of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf (ASG) toured the halls of the House of Representatives in Quezon City Thursday as part of an ongoing reintegration program for former extremists who wish to live a normal life.
Deputy Speaker and Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman said the ex-ASG members are part of the latest batch of beneficiaries of the Advancing and Sustaining Good Governance and Community Action Toward Resilience and Empowerment (AS2G-CARE) launched in June this year and implemented by the Balay Mindanao Foundation Inc. (BMFI) in collaboration with local government officials in Basilan.
The House tour is part of the Basilan Farmers Exposure Program that aims to teach these returnees farming techniques as a source of livelihood.
The ex-militants are bound for Baguio, Benguet, Pangasinan and Bulacan to study best practices for farming.
"Lahat sila ay ngayon lang makakarating ng Maynila o makakatuntong sa mga lugar tulad ng Kongreso," Hataman said in a statement.
(For all of them, it's the first time to visit Manila or visit a place like the House of Representatives.)
"We are showing them an alternative way of life, na mayroon silang kinabukasan kapag binitawan nila ang kanilang mga armas. We give them a reason to give up a life of fighting and turn to farming."
(We are showing them an alternative way of life, that they have a future if they give up arms. We give them a reason to give up a life of fighting and turn to farming.)
"It is good that they are exposed to a lot of places. They can start to dream, learn new things, and want their lives to be productive."
The program continues a similar reintegration scheme called Program Against Violent Extremism or PAVE Hataman started as governor of the then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
"Many of these people have known poverty and violence all their lives because of a lack of support from government and limited access to social services and education. Now, with the continuation of the PAVE program, they can build their lives, have families and be productive members of society once more," Hataman said.
In September, Hataman, along with Anak Mindanao party-list Rep. Amihilda Sangcopan, filed House Bill No. 4585 seeking to prevent and counter violent extremism and institutionalize state-led reintegration of those who surrender.
In its explanatory note, the bill said the State "shall establish a comprehensive, integrated and community-based program to prevent and counter violent extremism, and address the legal status and security of persons formerly engaged in violent extremism, as well as their economic, social and psychological rehabilitation needs."
The measure proposes a peace-building program that aims to encourage extremists to surrender, keep returnees within government fold, support reform and integration efforts of those who surrender, prevent radicalization, and build local government capabilities in reintegration efforts, among others.
The military continues offensives against the Abu Sayyaf Group in the restive south, aiming to quell their criminal and terrorist activities, including kidnapping for ransom and bomb attacks.