DAVAO CITY (MIndaNews/21 October) — As I wrote this column yesterday, thousands of MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) followers started flocking to the popular Crocodile Park outside the Davao City poblacion area at the Diversion Road for a “Summit” which I can call a “show of force”. When I passed by the highway early Sunday morning for a fun drive to Tagum City with the Davao Classic Sports Cars Club, the number of vehicles coming from all over Mindanao already filled up all the parking spaces inside the sprawling park area into the highway strip. The arrivals started descending on the area even the night before, endlessly coming throughout the whole night and into the day. I can’t accurately make an estimate of those in attendance yet but Nur’s MNLF definitely is “not a spent force” — as some of us want to believe.
It is a big mistake to drop MNLF Chair Nur Misuari from our radar screen and relegate him to the wayside as a “has been”, as some sectors are now saying just because we all want to give prominence and importance to the MILF Framework Agreement for peace. Last Sunday, he gathered again his followers in Davao City to rally them behind his cause.
“Maas” Nur, for all his faults, is still an icon to MNLF and non-MNLF alike, due to the personal sacrifices he gave to the Bangsamoro struggle — although many of them may no longer believe in his cause today. He is still a respected Muslim leader in the eyes of the leaders of the Islamic world. I saw this for myself during our foreign trips and meetings, although this was a few years back. He earned it well in his steadfast fight for the Muslims in this part of the world.
My unsolicited advice: we must re-engage, NOT DISPARAGE, him.
SECRET MISSION — I recall I was Chair of MEDCO in Mindanao in 2001 when President GMA called me and said: “You are a friend of Nur. Go fetch him from Malaysia”. Even during the Ramos administration, I was already handling Mindanao affairs and Nur and the MNLF were part of my coverage.
Nur was detained then in Malaysia when he attempted to escape through the “backdoor” and was arrested by Malaysian authorities for his alleged involvement in the failed attack on AFP forces in Sulu. This was during the early stage of the Arroyo administration.
To make the “special ops” covert and secret, I left on a C-130 big plane at midnight from Villamor Airbase. That ride was unforgettable. For about five hours, the old but reliable giant of a plane, humped and bumped. The cluttering noise of the “off and on” air conditioning motor even drowned out, from time to time the sound of the four engines. Notable about that special flight were the executive seats that were temporarily installed so I did not have to stand up along the way clinging to a harness as I did in past rides on the C-130 in my Mindanao work (next to coffins, at times). We had a cooler on board with drinks and snacks for the quick trip. A military lady nurse and a case officer were also on board.
‘GOING HOME” — When we landed at a military airbase in Malaysia, I was immediately whisked to a receiving area and waited for a while. Then the door swung open and there emerged Chairman Nur Misuari, with a Muslim Imam who was arrested with him, as his constant companion even at the detention area. He was heavily escorted by Malaysian authorities. He was surprised to see me. He did not expect to see me. “What are you doing here, Jess?” I simply answered: “I’m bringing you home, Nur.”
Evidently, he did not know that he was being brought out of his detention cell that night for a trip back to the Philippines. He was merely told that they were going somewhere and he did not even know that he was at the military airport as I assumed there were no flights at night for him to suspect otherwise. Except my C-130 landing still at dawn. Nur was not dressed for a return trip to his country and he looked to me as if he was attired to go to bed for the night. Someone in my party, a Muslim police officer, had the foresight to bring him fresh clothes. We were sensitive to a situation of having a noted rebel leader looking disheveled on his return trip home. The scenario of a surprise “pick up” evidently took that contingency into account.
PRINCIPLED –Nur, even during the procedures for his departure took a principled stand and insistent that he had done nothing wrong. He argued, with raised voice, with the Malaysian immigration officers that they had no basis to hold him or treat him that way or that he violated any Malaysian law. He even refused to sign any document that would facilitate his exit from Malaysian soil. It was rightful indignation, I thought. The Malaysian officer finally said: “You are in Malaysian territory and your passport has no entry stamp on its face so you entered illegally.” He was right. But Nur remained adamant. Finally, I volunteered to sign any document just to allow us to leave in haste.
NUR’S TRAVAILS — And off we went without delay. We walked briskly towards the waiting plane. Nur must have not dreamed of this to happen that night. The C-130 engines hummed back to life, not even totally cooled down yet after that long trip from Manila.
On board the C-130 several thousand feet in the air, Nur who was seated next to me in those provisional seats, slumped back, appeared so relieved and told me about his travails inside the Malaysian detention area. Contrary to the popular view back home that he was princely or royally treated by the Malaysians, his detention cell was dark, without any contact with the outside world. No newspapers to read. He would even insist at times to be allowed to “see the sun.”
JABIDAH MASSACRE — The way he was treated by the Malaysians was way off the way he was accorded courtesies and even protection at the height of the Muslim rebellion when Malaysia then considered the MNLF and Nur as their ally in the Sabah problem. Remember that the Muslim uprising, with Nur in the forefront, was triggered by the discovery of a failed Philippine government secret plan to invade Sabah in the infamous “Jabidah Massacre” where some commando-trained Muslims who were being prepared to do a foreign mission to invade Sabah were massacred in an island in the south in a deadly “cover-up operations” to prevent the story from leaking out. One survivor however told the story to the world.
Nur and his commanders used to crisscross the southern waters and sought sanctuary in Malaysian soil, of course with the knowledge or quiet tolerance — if not assistance — of the Malaysians during those friendlier times.
With this in mind, we should not be surprised why Nur now is nurturing deep seated and seething dislike and grudge towards the Malaysians. You can’t blame him.
NO HANDCUFFS, PLEASE — Back to Nur in the plane. There was some minor discussion among the police officers who accompanied me whether the SOP of using handcuffs on Nur and the religious imam who was his constant companion, should be done. I thought it was unnecessary and it was quickly settled. The Muslim Imam fell to sleep in a jiffy in a seat at the back while the lady nurse took the reglamentary blood pressure tests. I volunteered too. My BP, as I expected was high. Those were fast clip and high strung events we all just went through.
DECOY — When we were approaching Philippine airspace to land, we diverted the flight from the Villamor Air Base to a military airfield outside of Metro Manila as we got information while in-flight that some newspaper and TV reporters were stationed and waiting at the base for our landing. Somehow the “secret mission” was no longer secret anymore.
We landed in another airbase but still there were a few reporters spotted waiting there. So we had a decoy group appearing to have disembarked from the C-130, with a shrouded man, to a waiting van that the reporters chased in vainful search for Nur while we took off from a waiting helicopter to whisk him to Sta Rosa, Laguna where Nur was turned over for his detention.
CAREGIVER — A detention facility that was more of a home with some fixtures, although surrounded by a barbed wire fence became his home, including his family, for sometime in the middle of a sprawling PNP training camp. Eventually, while still under my watch, he was moved to a house in the old Manila area where he stayed until he was released on bail and eventually acquitted by the trial court for the rebellion charges filed against him. Again, the rest is history.
In all those times, I was sort of Nur’s caregiver. Looking back, It was a privilege to be one. . (Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).