COMMENT: The Duterte-Misuari Puzzle

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/27 March) – Really puzzling! This Duterte-Misuari puzzle!

President Duterte coddles and is beholden to Misuari. Evident! The erstwhile top Moro rebel leader, founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, has obviously Duterte under his spell. Evident! Read media reports of how the two have been relating.

Misuari now demands federalization. If this cannot be given to him, he will declare war. To utter such a threat in the face of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is unthinkable. But Duterte didn’t rebuff Misuari; instead, sounding conciliatory, he proposed two panels formed to discuss what Misuari wants.

This happened during their conversation in Malacañan last March 20 on Misuari’s return from the United Arab Emirates and Morocco where he attended meetings under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This was not the first of Misuari’s demands, frank or otherwise, that Duterte had favorably considered.

Palace officials, particularly President Spokesman Salvador Panelo has belabored trying to clarify or interpret what Duterte had clearly said to show him as being “in control”. In doing so, he only highlighted the obvious.

In this latest episode, Duterte revealed their conversation during a campaign speech – not in an interview or through a Palace source – Misuari’s demand for federalization as promised to him by President Corazon C. Aquino and threat of war if denied. He told his audience, among them reporters, his thoughts and response to Misuari:

“So meron ako isang revolution pa. Sabi ni Misuari kagabi, ‘If you do not give it to me, let me be very honest. I will go to war’”.

“Sabi ko, ‘I understand that, Nur. So ganito na lang gawin natin. Let’s form a panel because you have to inform the people. We cannot negotiate secretly here’”. (Quoted from “The Philippine Star, March 22, 2019: Federalism or war? Gov’t ready for Nur Misuari”, one of the thirteen reports from nine national media online that repetitiously quoted Duterte with slight variations.)

To the above, Panelo added, quoting the President, “Whatever the product of that discussion, they will have a one-on-one meeting. And then he said, ‘After which, we will celebrate for its success; and if it fails, we will die together…’ – that was the response of the President”.

What is not clear in the quoted conversation? In all the thirteen reports we have compiled, not one carried what Panelo quoted.  Did Duterte say what Panelo quoted him to have said?

Panelo clarified that the President had meant to rebuff Misuari and issue his counter-threat.  Is that in the conversation? Clarifying or interpreting what is clear only complicates the puzzle.

Question No. 1

What does Misuari have to easily win for him special favors from President Duterte?

To Duterte Misuari is a great revolutionary who is the key to lasting peace in Mindanao. From the very start of his administration he sought the presence of Misuari in the final resolution of the Moro problem regardless of the Government-Moro Islamic Liberation Front Agreement just waiting for the final act of the Congress. The 17th Congress could have passed the final act, RA 11054, a year earlier had the rewriting of the bill not been delayed because Misuari could not come out of hiding until November 2017 — after the suspension of his arrest order for rebellion through the intercession of the President.

But to his co-rebel leaders and co-founders of the MNLF, as a revolutionary, as a peace negotiator, as a local government executive and peace maker, he is discredited. Let’s revisit the past:

  1. Until 1977, Misuari was the unquestioned leader of the MNLF. However, after the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in 1976, the MNLF gradually disintegrated. The Salamat Hashim group, now the MILF broke away in 1977; the Dimas Pundato Reformed Group followed in 1981. After the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, the Misuari MNLF further splintered. In 2001, the MNLF Council of 15 (Central Committee) ousted him as MNLF Chairman for incompetence, then conferred the title “Chairman Emeritus”.
  2. Misuari negotiated peace with the Philippine Government for almost thirty years including the review of the Final Peace Agreement. He signed the “uncompleted” 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement — its “review” still pending and claimed “not fully implemented”. The 90-day exploratory talk for the implementation of the 1987 Jeddah Accord ended in a stalemate. All these yielded dissatisfaction.
  3. As ARMM governor, he was not better than his two predecessors in terms of governance and socioeconomic development. In fact, he is now facing a corruption case as governor.
  4. As ARMM governor and an international peace awardee, he was supposed to be among the top peace makers in Mindanao. Yet, in 2001 he staged a short revolt in Zamboanga City and Jolo; and another in Zamboanga City in 2013.

Question No. 2

What does Duterte lack that Misuari can provide?

Duterte, won with 15,970,018 votes, 38.6% of 41,341,402 valid votes canvassed – a little more than 2.5 million less than the votes of Manuel Roxas II (2nd) and Grace Poe (3rd) combined. He has very strong mandate and political will; he is wielding them to do what he wants as he wants. He is adored as much as criticized and scorned.

He is popular — the only President ever since the poll survey came into use whose acceptance ratings have remained “very good” for three years since taking office.

Yet, halfway his six-year term, his key election promises are still promises. By his own admission, he is frustrated in his war vs. drugs. Read today’s report, Duterte: Philippines drug situation has worsened,” by Edith Regalado, The Philippine Star, March 27, 2019. His “Build, Build, Build” program is lagging; his campaign to eradicate corruption in government is still mostly threats.

Federalization, a historic political reform to shift government from the unitary to the federalized, looks doomed. According to surveys, the vast majority of Filipinos are not ready for it; all efforts done so far got snagged in the Congress – the Senate standing firm against the House. Evidently, Duterte is desperate. The 18th Congress is his only hope.

Mutual Back-scratching

Both Duterte and Misuari want federalization. What Misuari can have of his demand – whole, little or nothing – would depend on how Duterte could attain his federalization. He desperately needs the full cooperation of the Congress.

Is Misuari of help? Duterte might have seen one; by a long shot, Misuari’s “war threat” might help elect Duterte’s men to the Senate.

Duterte is the only post-Marcos President to actively campaign for his Senate bets — even before the official start of the campaign period. At the Marikina City rally last March 21, he presented the war threat: Misuari is demanding federalization; he will declare war if he we fail to give it to him.

In short, he will dangle the Misuari threat to help his candidates win the Senate. He is sure most of the House members behind the federalization bill will return. With a federalization-friendly supermajority in the Senate, federalization will be a cinch. Misuari can have his “federalization” according to the Constitution. War can be averted.

People know Misuari staged short revolts in 2001 under President Arroyo and in 2013 under President Aquino III. He could mean his threat. With Duterte conveying the threat, will this scare the voters to vote for his senate bets to avoid war?