MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/18 September) – From a University of the Philippines professor, Nur Misuari became the founding chair of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which fought a bitter war of independence against the Marcos government starting in the early years of Martial Law.
The 1968 Jabidah Massacre in Corregidor Island where 68 (the number varies) Moro recruits to the Philippine military were killed for reportedly refusing to be part of Oplan Merdeka, a plot to seize Sabah from Malaysian control, provided the spark for the uprising. Sabah is historically part of the Sultanate of Sulu whose heirs recently staged a failed attempt to regain it.
For leading the war of independence, Misuari earned for himself a place in history and in the hearts of the Moro people and Muslims in other parts of the world. In fact, in 1977 the Organization of Islamic Conference (now Cooperation) granted his group an observer status in the pan-Islamic body.
Things soured for the MNLF however after a series of military setbacks aggravated by the capitulation of many field commanders to government. Nonetheless, the MNLF and Philippine government forged the 1976 Tripoli Agreement which essentially committed Misuari’s group to drop secession and opt for autonomy covering 13 provinces including Palawan. The autonomous region was only realized in 1989, but was reduced to just four, and later five, provinces.
After Tripoli, dissensions wracked the MNLF resulting in a split from which sprang the MNLF-Dimas Pundato faction and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led by the late Hashim Salamat. Pundato’s group eventually faded away from the scene, while the MILF grew in strength, resumed the war for secession and made it clear that it intended to build an Islamic state in contrast to Misuari’s more secular ideology.
Yet while the factionalism appeared to have been caused by differences over strategy and ideology, it also seemed to have been drawn along ethnic lines, according to my professor in Islamic and Arabic Studies in college. Pundato was a Maranao, Salamat was a Maguindanao and Misuari is a Tausug. If this was partly the case, then it can be said that the individual egos of the leaders were to blame too for their parting of ways.
Regardless of what the biggest reason for the split was, Misuari, although able to maintain the loyalty of the MNLF in his home province, had been eclipsed by Salamat’s ascendancy. Compared to the MNLF, the MILF was – and still is – the bigger threat to government, its vision of creating an Islamic state after independence serving as a potent political motivation. If Misuari was able to keep his political nose above the water, it was mainly because of OIC backing.
Indeed, OIC support did most of the talking for Misuari, from Tripoli to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Republic Act 6734) to the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) which concluded the Tripoli pact. Never mind that the FPA does not carry strong provisions on the issue of territory – except that it led to the passage of RA 9054 amending RA 6734 – unlike the botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain and later the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
Outside of the OIC’s shadow however Misuari acted like a lost lamb. He squandered his chances as ARMM governor with critics saying he was a good revolutionary leader but a bad administrator. Having failed to leave a lasting legacy as governor, he tried to muscle his way out of possible ignominy after his exit from office by staging the infamous Cabatangan siege in Zamboanga City in November 2001. He demanded the postponement of the ARMM elections scheduled that month to 2003 pending the full implementation of the FPA.
After Cabatangan Misuari escaped to Malaysia but was captured there and subsequently deported to the Philippines to face rebellion charges.
Fast forward to September 9, 2013. Misuari’s men sneaked again into Zamboanga City for a “peace rally” complete with high-powered guns the bloody outcome of which was still unfolding as this was being written.
Now, the MNLF under Misuari may have legitimate grievances in relation to government’s policy toward the 1996 FPA. After all, it is binding on the Philippine state, not just on the Ramos administration. As such, the current government can be faulted for making light of the scenarios that could happen if Misuari’s rumblings were ignored.
Still, the taking of civilians as hostages and other reported abuses, not to mention the displacement of close to 100,000 local residents, can never be justified. Such acts have diminished whatever moral legitimacy is left in his leadership, and only strengthened the anti-Moro sentiment among Zamboanga City’s residents and even among the majority of Filipino Christians in general.
So what will government do with Misuari whose military adventure is sure to create far-reaching ripples long after the last MNLF fighter is driven out, if not killed or captured? President Aquino III will soon realize it is easier to plan out tactical moves against the rebels than deal with its outcome.
Will government indict and arrest Misuari or will it opt for a settlement? Neither of these options would be completely beneficial to government. Arresting Misuari might only strengthen his stature as a martyr among his people. On the other hand, absolving him of any culpability in the Zamboanga standoff would be unacceptable to the majority.
Misuari has reached a crossroad. And so has government.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)