COMMENTARY: Misuari is back; can he help bring peace to Mindanao?

JAKARTA (MindaNews / 14 Nov) — Nur Misuari, the mercurial founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, is back in circulation, back in the limelight, thanks to an old friend, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, president of the Philippines.

In the days to come, expect Misuari to stuff the airwaves with his fiery rhetoric.

He had been lying low in his Sulu mountain lair since 2013 after he led the failed siege of Zamboanga City, in which more than a hundred of his fighters lost their lives. The bloody siege devastated the city and many Zamboangeños cannot forgive him for the ordeal he had inflicted on them. But recently a local judge lifted the warrant for his arrest and thus he was able to fulfill Duterte’s invitation to participate in government-sponsored peace talks.

These new talks represent a “third cycle” in the Mindanao peace process set into motion by the Tripoli Agreement signed in Libya by the Philippine government and the MNLF in 1976.

The first cycle was the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MNLF mediated by Indonesia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It was launched in Cipanas, West Java, in 1992 and culminated in a Final Peace Agreement signed in September 1996 in Malacanang, Manila, by the administration of then president Fidel V. Ramos and the MNLF.

The late foreign minister Ali Alatas was the overall mediator; ambassador Wiryono Sastrohandoyo chaired the main committee; while the future foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda chaired the mixed committee. All the negotiating committees boasted a government panel, an MNLF panel and a panel of Indonesian mediators.

That cycle was a massive four-year undertaking that involved 70 meetings at technical level, eight mixed committee meetings — all held in southern Philippines — and four rounds of formal peace talks and a final mixed committee meeting held in Jakarta. The Final Peace Agreement provided for, among others, the integration of 7,500 MNLF fighters into the Philippine armed forces and the police, and for the socio-economic development of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The second cycle

But that “Final Agreement” was not really final, as not all Moro rebels recognized it. There is a breakaway group from the MNLF that even at that time had grown larger and stronger than the mother organization. Called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), this group began informally negotiating with the Ramos government in 1996, thus starting a second cycle in the peace process. But Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada, took a harsh view of the MILF and instead of sustaining negotiations, waged total war against the front. Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to craft her own peace agreement with the MILF, but the Philippine Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Her successor, Benigno Aquino III, concluded a framework agreement and later a Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF. But the legislation that would enable the implementation of the CAB, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was killed in Philippine Congress after 44 elite police officers perished in a mis-encounter with the MILF early last year. That brought down the curtains on the second cycle of the Mindanao peace process.

Today the only effective peace agreement in Mindanao is the Final Peace Agreement mediated by Indonesia. Its implementation, much delayed in the case of several socio-economic provisions, is the subject of a tripartite review, with Indonesia representing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in that process.

While the second cycle of the Mindanao peace process was carried out in fits and starts, Misuari was on a downward spiral. He had been elected unopposed as governor of the ARMM and had been appointed head of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, supposedly the transition authority toward a more powerful regional government. He thus became the most powerful person in Mindanao, next to the president, but he bungled the opportunity. The common observation is that he had no taste for governing.

Acts of rebellion

Several of his own colleagues in the MNLF, accusing him of incompetence as governor, ousted him as chairman in April 2000. On the eve of elections for his successor as ARMM governor in November 2001, a vengeful Misuari led a rebellion on Jolo Island and Zamboanga City. When the rebellion was crushed, he fled to Malaysia but the government there extradited him to the Philippines where he was detained for some time, but was eventually released.

On 09 September 2013, a faction of the MNLF that recognizes Misuari as chairman besieged Zamboanga City. This was on the eve of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) between the government of Benigno Aquino III and the MILF. Apparently the attack was an effort to disrupt the peace process. Heavy fighting during the first 12 days of the three-week crisis resulted in the death of more than 200 persons, a good number of them civilians. Most of the slain, however, were MNLF fighters.

In the aftermath, Nur Misuari went into hiding and would not emerge until recently when a newly minted President Duterte invited him to participate in new peace talks, this time involving both the MNLF and the MILF.

In simple but impressive rites, Duterte welcomed him, expressing optimism that he would contribute to the quest for peace in Mindanao. The question in the minds of many Mindanaoans is whether Misuari can still be a force for peace. I think he still can. He has a sizable mass base in the poor villages of Sulu and a comprehensive peace in Mindanao might be extremely difficult if this mass base were not on board. But the days are over when his charisma held absolute sway over the Bangsamoro. He must now adjust to the MILF’s stronger field presence and to the views of other MNLF factions. One faction is led by no less than Abul Khayr Alonto, his original MNLF vice-chairman, who now sits on the Duterte cabinet as head of the Mindanao Development Authority (Minda), and whose portfolio includes the BIMP-EAGA.

Mortality and redemption

Last February, Misuari installed his eldest son, 39-year-old Haji Uto Karim, a Shariah scholar who is reputedly more radical than his father, as his vice chairman. A diabetic, Misuari must be feeling less than subtle intimations of his mortality.

He may yet redeem himself, thanks to Duterte. He can be a constructive voice in this new effort to roll the good provisions of all previous agreements between the Philippine government and the Moro rebels into a single enabling law that will replace Republic Act 9054, the law that still supports the Final Peace Agreement concluded with Indonesian mediation.

But he has to tone down his divisive rhetoric and buckle down to the serious business of negotiating and partnering with others who also hold robust ideas on what constitutes progress, equality and justice.

It’s not only Misuari who must change. All the Moro negotiators, all of them, whether MILF or MNLF, have to transcend the ethnicity-based grievances and prejudices that now divide the mainland Moros — the Maguindanaons, the Maranaws and the Iranuns — from the island Moros — the Tausogs, the Samas and the Yakans.

If they cannot unite for the sake of the common good, not even a Mindanaoan president like Duterte can help them.

(Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. He is a Filipino who once resided in Mindanao. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at This piece was first published in Jakarta Globe on November 7, 2016. Permission to reprint granted to MindaNews by the author)