Q and A. MNLF chair Muslimin Sema: “The prospect of peace is very bright”

Muslimin Sema’s most famous photograph as commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Maguindanao was coming down from the mountain in Dinaig town on horseback for an interview with the media on the efforts of the MNLF in freeing kidnapped priest Yves Caroff of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1991.

Carroff was reported to have been rescued by Sema’s group on April 26, 1991, after a month in captivity.

Years later, in 1998, Sema, already mayor of Cotabato City, received Caroff at City Hall. The priest came to congratulate him. “He brought with him a t-shirt I gave him.”

Sema, who is turning 68 in April, was studying Engineering at the National University in Manila when he responded to the clarion call of the Bangsamoro struggle by joining the Philippine Muslim Nationalist League.

He was a reporter for the Philippine Muslim News, the organization’s newspaper, whose editor in chief, he said, was a young professor named Nur Misuari.  

In the aftermath of the Jabidah Massacre of March 18, 1968,  Sema joined Misuari and two others in interviewing massacre survivor Jibin Arula in the house of then Cavite Governor Montano.

Muslimin Sema, chair of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, was Secretary-General of the MNLF during the 1992-1996 peace negotiations that led to the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Sema was back in Cotabato City two days before martial law was declared on September 21, 1972 President Ferdinand Marcos. “Somebody tipped us off.” 

The arrival in Cotabato was also their send off to the frontlines of the revolution. 

“We sheltered Nur Misuari here, in the eastern part of  Cotabato City … our barangay. We sheltered him there for a long time. And then to Palimbang, we moved him to Palimbang,” where Misuari stayed for half a year.  

“And then we moved him when the fighting in Tran broke out in February 1973, so we brought him to Sabah. And he came back only in 1986.”  

Sema was a member of the MNLF peace panel in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 under the Marcos dictatorship and was MNLF Secretary-General during the peace negotiations with the Ramos administration from 1992 until the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement on September 2, 1996.

MindaNews intervewed Sema in his residence in Cotabato City on December 14.


Q. There was supposed to be a roadmap, a Bangsamoro Peace Road Map, and they expanded the Bangsamoro Transition Commission from 15 to 21 supposedly to make it more inclusive and include the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in that BTC.. so that they will come up with one law… but somewhere along the way, something happened. And so, Nur Misuari will now have a separate implementing panel, but that’s just MNLF-Nur Misuari faction.
A. And government.

Q. And Government, and MNLF-Sema and the other factions are with, are in the BTC? Isn’t that very complicated?
A. Our .. decision to join the Bangsamoro Transition Commission is in line with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s resolution and the Bangsamoro Coordinating Forum’s decisions for the MNLF and the MILF to work for the convergence of all the peace agreements and also the BBL, and .. all the gains of the peace agreements that we have signed — the gains of the 1976, 1996 peace agreement …

Q. I was asking about..  people are getting confused …
A. Yeah. Well. unang-una, I will answer the first question regarding the prospect of peace, the success of the peace process under the Duterte Administration. The … determination of President Rodrigo Duterte to solve the problem in Mindanao is, encouraging all of us to work towards that end, because we have started that already. There are only a few kinks on the peace process, and with this man from Mindanao, and knowing the problem by heart, the historical injustices committed to the Bangsamoro people is something … like a strong battery driving us to work, cooperate with this administration for the final resolution of the problem in Mindanao.

So I see a very very bright future in the resolution of the problem here – except if there are, you know, circumstances that may come in the way, that will obstruct (the peace process). And I see these little kinks .. little problem, small problem in this effort with .. on one hand we have the Bangsamoro Transition Commission or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, under our leadership, including other sectors have willingly agreed to sit down together and have what we call a convergence and harmonizing all these gains of the peace agreements we have signed: 1976, 1996, Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. On the other hand, there is Misuari trying to isolate himself and have a separate a track you know. So only this little problem I see that could possibly delay, if at all. But certainly I see, because of the strong determination of all the sectors — the MILF and the larger part of the Moro National Liberation Front working together, the prospect of peace is very bright.

Q. But do you really consider it as a little problem, this separate track with Nur? Because it’s getting people confused, even those who have been monitoring …
A… small problem in the sense that there are more people who want peace. There are more people who want to work together. So I think it’s a question of how this government … will deal with this situation. But I think with a greater number of people working together, as against a small group, I don’t think that there would be a hindrance towards peace.

Muslimin Sema, chair of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front says the prospect for peace is “very bright” under the Duterte administration. MIndaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Q. It’s already December and the target for the submission of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law is in July 2017. So we only have actually seven months, at wala pang appoint na BTC.
A. Well I was informed a few days ago that in few days’ time, the appointments of the members of the BTC will be in place and that immediately, it will be made to function. So we are hinging our hope on that … Kami, we don’t give chance to disappointments. We don’t give immediately to delays like this. But we are more hopeful the President will, I’m sure if we are aggressive in pursuing this peace effort, all the more the President is more aggressive.

Q. But the President has been quiet lately about pushing for the BBL. He has been vocal and has been repeatedly talking about pushing for federalism. So, parang in terms of priority, although he did promise before na he will make the Bangsamoro a template for the federal system…
A. Yes. Well, we could not conclude anything right now because in the first place there is no BTC yet. Unless the BTC is put in place and made to work, and its product is questioned, then only then can we say that the President is changing course.

Q. But as far as you are concerned, are you pushing for BBL first before federalism? Or federalism first before BBL? Or complementary?
A. As agreed, we want to stick to what we have agreed – that the solution of the Bangsamoro Question is based on the agreements that we have signed, based on the understanding that we have reached with the national government. And we would like to push this process as a solution to the problem of the Moro people. And if the issue of federalism will come in, then I think it will not be difficult for us to adapt to the new system of government that will be pushed by the national government. As we have been talking, and sometimes the government officials are saying, the success of the autonomous arrangement that we will able to put up will become a template for federalism.

Q. Yeah pero the President is pushing for a 2019 plebiscite on federalism. And we also know that Congress is going to sit as constituent assembly di ba? So if I were Congress, ang gulo-gulo niyo eh, di ba, yun ang perception ng Congress, na hindi nga kayo magka-unite – yung MNLF, MILF, Nur, etc. So unahin na lang namin ‘tong federalism …
A. Definitely we have agreed — the MNLF and the MILF have agreed to converge. It’s just a matter of starting up. So once BTC is there, because we have agreed already, the MILF the MNLF have organized a technical working group that worked for the convergence and harmonization of the peace agreement and the BBL. So tapos na, almost tapos na yan. So it’s just a matter of putting this in the BTC, you know, adapting it and then forwarding it to the …

Q. So kaya yan in seven months? Six months?
A. I think even less, because everything is, wala naman masyadong pag-uusapan. There are only questions of a constitutionality, so all of this can be, I think settled. We have good legal minds to attend to that.

Q. You are not afraid that the Congress will sit on the bill?
A. No, I’m not because I believe that the President has a strong hand in Congress. And if the President is really determined to push for this solution of the problem, then with Congress under him, toeing his direction, I’m sure. Siguro by accident lang hindi to matutuloy.

And I don’t think that people would go back to what we’ve been (through) before. Because siguro naman, kung mangyayari yun, and it would be a disadvantage to all because, we cannot also be sure that nobody will stand up, question why all this happened after all the cooperation we have given to government, and yet some people will still play around with our commitment for peace.

Q. But the Duterte Administration also wants to … Secretary Dureza said that the convergence of the two peace tracks will be done by Congress. Do you favor that?
A. Well, I don’t know. That’s our government’s lookout. What’s important is we have agreed that we have this Bangsamoro Transition Commission to work on this. Now if government will still allow other areas to tinker with this, then that we cannot understand.

Q. Don’t you find this Misuari Implementing Panel complicating the situation?
A. Sure, it is complicating. But we’ll leave it to the government because meron namang kausap ang government. Palagay ko, it is clear na yung mga kausuap ng gobyerno ay hindi mga pipitsugin na yung mga napag-usapan na ay iderail na lang basta-basta.

Q. Do you think that a Moro assembly will …
A. Will work?

Q. Will be able to work on the convergence? Or will this require the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum?
A. Well, let me put it this way. The one that crafted all these solutions, agreements, are the two parties: the government, and the Moro fronts. It’s already there. Hindi ko pa alam kung ano pa ang wala diyan. I don’t know what other sectors can be put in. So, with these finished products ready to be just converged, harmonized by both parties – government and the Moro fronts under the BTC — then palagay ko hindi mahirap.

Q. Do we need the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum for this?
A. Yes, of course. The Bangsamoro Coordination Forum is the mechanism. That’s why, I said, hindi ko alam kung ano pang forum na legitimate more than the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum that we have agreed on, that we have accepted, that the government has formulated, and the Moro fronts formulated, jointly agreed to put up. It’s the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum, with representation coming from the fronts. Now it’s open to other sectors which would now represent the totality of the population here in Mindanao. So if there is a need for a Bangsamoro Congress, maybe it would be another layer.

Q. Kasi meron yan sa EO, diba. Sa Executive Order nung Bangsamoro Transition Commission?
A. Well it can be, yes, the assembly can be used… after all of these have been formulated, na-finalize na, then maybe it can be presented to the Bangsamoro Assembly.

Q. You would have three seats in the …
A. Three seats, yes.

Q. When was the last time you were with Misuari?
A. The last time was the before the Jolo uprising. 2000, year 2000. I was sitting as mayor of Cotabato City, and he was still with the office of the Regional Governor. I used to visit him, sometimes at night, so that was the last time we met. And of course, ah yeah, I remember when he was in prison, I visited him twice, in Santa Rosa and in the house rented by the government.

Q. The White House. In New Manila, Quezon City.
A. Yes.

Q. But this was also the period already when the Executive Council was
A. Yes, because you know the Executive council worked so hard to help him for his release. We made representations for him with our brothers in Libya to help work for his release. There were so many people involved in convincing Malacañang under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to release him. When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected in 2004, we were the first visitors she entertained in Malacañang. And the only issue that we discussed with her was the release of Nur Misuari.

Q. Why does he, why does Nur consider you traitors?
A. I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know.

Q. Even if you had set -up this Executive Council, nagpunta pa kayo sa kanya … And he received you?
A. Yes, and as a matter of fact …

Q. I want to understand what happened, why Nur considers what you did, you and 15 as treachery.
A. That we cannot understand. Because the only purpose of the Executive Council was yung ayusin ang MNLF. Because during that time, when he was sitting as Governor, he could not differentiate his position as a government official and as rebel leader.  So we wanted him to focus more on governance. We told him that the next thing to happen is for him to face the election. If we want to continue governance, then we have to face our people in an election. And therefore we have to have a good, you know, personality to face the people in an election, so that he has to assign the handling of the MNLF to, maybe a small group, so that he can focus more on making friends with Malacañang. Making friends with all the political leaders around Mindanao. Because that is the requirement of …

Q. But during this period when you set-up the Council, this was also the period when R.A. 9054 lapsed into law, di ba?
A. Ah, yes …

Q. And earlier, you boycotted the plebiscite on this, tama ba?
A. Yes, yes. We boycotted the … plebiscite conducted on August 14 of 2001.

Q. I noticed Hatimil Hassan was elected as …
A. Elected as chairman of the MNLF, after …

Q. Because he was Vice Chair, ‘di ba?
A. You know, after some time, the existence of the Executive Council, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference advised the MNLF to elect a chairman. Not a Council, because it’s difficult to deal with a big group. So that the first election of the Central Committee Chairman was sometime in 2006, in Davao City. Hatimil Hasan was elected chairman … because we also adopted a charter which was one of differences we had with Nur Misuari because he didn’t want to adopt a charter. And we give primacy to the authority of the Central Committee as a highest governing decision making body of the MNLF, not one single man. So that is how we proceeded.

Q. But you allowed him to be one-man-rule until 2001, ‘di ba?
A. Ah well, because during the time, we were not yet settled … So that was the reason why many brothers went out (of the MNLF). The first Secretary General of the MNLF, resigned. Dimas Ppundato, he was the Vice Chairman of MNLF, also left …

Q. Kalaban ni Hashim.
A. Yes. The chief of staff of the MNLF also resigned. So we have to grapple with this situation that everybody is leaving because of differences with Nur Misuari.

Q. Ah sir ito, this really has to be asked, kasi naka ilang peace agreement na tayo ‘di ba? 1976, 1996, 2012, 2014… Basically if we go by experience, the peace agreements were never fully implemented.
A. True.

Q. So what makes you think this time that the peace agreements, both MNLF and MILF will really …
A. Well, it would really depend on the determination of the leadership of the country. And now we have a Mindanawon who feels that it is his problem, sariling problema niya na gusto niyang gamutin. So, this is the only hope that we have. That’s why we are not losing hope. But after this, then we have said that this is the last President that we will talk to.

Q. Really?
A. Yes.

Q. You seem to be very definitive about that.
A. Well, because you know, people are awakened also.

Q. So this is the last President that you will ever be talking to…
A. Inshallah.

Q. Okay. Speaking of the last President that you will be talking to, I’m sure you’re also aware that masyadong mabilis yung developments nung violent extremism. How this is affecting us.
A. Exactly. That’s why we have to be in a hurry. That’s why we are prodding this government to hurry up to resolve this issue because it’s not only us. .. Baka, later on, kahit matutulog pa ako, kahit na we will not move … somebody else will move. That’s such a danger that we want to avoid.

We don’t want any other ideas to be superimposed over us ..  and then to be imposed on our people tulad ng nangyayari sa other countries. So we don’t want that to happen here. We already hear this happening in other parts of Mindanao, and then they said ISIS is here to come. So we don’t want this to succeed… we can fight this only through the success of the peace process that we have started all these years.

Q. If I were a young Moro, and I am inclined to following the violent extremists, I will point to the failure of the implementation that is …
A. Exactly. It has become a battle cry. It has become an issue, that’s why they say ‘you have been talking for so long, you have been, ah, pinapaikot lang kayo.’ These are the voices, increasing in almost every nook and corner of our homeland.

Q. How then can you stop violent extremism from spreading?
A. The only thing is we have to call upon them, that this government, the government of the Republic of the Philippines is serious in addressing the problem of the Moro people.

Q. Part of addressing the historical injustice is really to, uhm … you’re familiar with transitional justice commission, ‘di ba? Yung recommendation sa GPH-MILF na peace process. There is not a mechanism similar to that in the GPH-MILF peace process, ‘di ba?
A. Yeah. We have to adapt that, you know. We have to, that’s why we have to reconcile all these in the BTC, we have to reconcile this. There might be pros and cons, you know, so we have the mechanism. That all, nandiyan kami, pag-uusapan, with of course the government. That’s why I see no reason why we cannot succeed. If only we will make this mechanism work.

Q. How will you ensure that it can work? That it will work?
A. Well, we’re there. The MILF has accepted to converge, harmonize, and we both have accepted to work together. I don’t see any reason why we cannot succeed.

Q. But as Secretary Dureza said, it will be Congress that will converge the two peace tracks.
A. Then we leave it up to them, their wisdom. What’s important is we have, we’ll be able to contribute the best of our ideas with all sincerity. And then if somewhere, those good works that we have contributed will be destroyed, that will be the cause, the basis of another unpeace in the country. Then … we cannot blame ourselves.

Q. What do you foresee then?
A. Well, what is the other side of peace?

Q. Is it necessarily war?
A. We cannot … we can never say. We can never tell, you know. Because ah, marami nang tao ngayon. The MNLF and the MILF are now working together, and there’s another trying to, you know, separate ways. And there are other people who are still not in the process. So if we fail, then …

Q. Hmm, but if I were Congress, and we know the history naman that this is the same Congress that actually did not pass the BBL or even watered it down, then practically, that’s the same complexion. So unless of course the President really pushes them hard. But the way he has been speaking recently, very … hindi na niya actually na-me-mention yung BBL eh. He’s been focusing on federalism, and has been repeatedly saying that, only federalism can bring peace to Mindanao. Is that
A. Oh, well, well…

Q. Do you believe that federalism is the only, is the solution to addressing the Bangsamoro Question?
A. Well, in a way, federalism will be a big stride for change. But in the case of the Moro people, we have to look at it separately before we move for federalism. Before including the Moro issue in the federal issue, then we have to resolve it first. And I think, we are done in that, we are decided on that. The OPAPP has already agreed on that. More and more government officials who have been dealing with Moro issue are agreed with that proposition. So I don’t know, I don’t know it’s difficult to anticipate what’s gonna happen when the other thing happens

Q. Where did the MNLF, as an organization, fail in terms of the 1996 peace agreement?
A. It’s not that we failed. I think, it’s the agreements that we have signed that failed.

Q. Hmm…
A. Did we fail in pursuing it?  No, we did not. We have given so much. If we say this, if we call this a failure, the giving in, giving out so much without so much question… baka yun yung failure namin. But ours was complete trust to our counterpart that we have opened our hands, our heart, in accepting being Filipino again, accepting that we are part and parcel of this Republic, recognizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines. If that is a failure, then we failed there.

Q. Do you have regrets about what happened in … ?
A. As of now, no. That’s why we are still pursuing it.

Q. Can you see this bearing fruit within your lifetime? I mean, do you actually believe that you will see peace in your lifetime?
A. Well, peace in my lifetime. Even if I wouldn’t see peace in my lifetime, what’s important is that I have been a part of it, in the effort to work for peace.

Q. Have you met with President Duterte?
A. Yes. Matagal na.

Q. Oh. because you were mayor, ‘di ba?
A. Yes. Yes …

Q. So you saw each other in the League of Mayors ano?
A. We are good friends. You know when they were working for the Federal Republic of Mindanao, together with Speaker (Alvarez) in 2000 or 2001 … I remember that, in Bukidnon together with all the Mindanao leaders.

Q. On federalism?
A. Yes. On the Federal Republic of Mindanao.

Q. And what was resolved there?
A. Well, actually that was what you call this, an alternative. Should Manila pursue with the amendment of the Constitution, something like that… So they would, we would declare a Federal republic of Mindanao. You remember that they have, ah, composed already, they have the Speaker now, composed already the hymn. Mindanao hymn. And we had the dollar, and so forth and so on. So I told them, don’t make a joke on that, because I’ve been there. I just raised my hand to talk the allegiance to the Republic of the Philippines as one solid state. So, sabi ko, huwag niyo akong biruin diyan.

Q. Gusto ko lang maintindihan … ano ba talaga ang composition ng MNLF ngayon? I mean you have how many factions now?
A. We only have, we have two. Only Misuari … actually only one MNLF. Siya lang man ang hindi namin kasundo eh. All the commanders of the MNLF are … we can talk, you know. You know what happened during the Jolo uprising? When he called for all commanders all over the Mindanao to open up new fronts because they were hard-pressed in Jolo?

Q. Jolo or Zamboanga?
A. Jolo. 2001. So people called us, our brothers called us, ‘ano ba itong command na ito? Ano ‘tong instruction na ito? Is this sanctioned?’ Tapos sabi namin, ‘no we wala tayong pinag-uusapan na giyera.’

During the Zamboanga uprising, ganon na rin. There were calls from MNLF commanders to open new fronts so that they will be eased up in Zamboanga. So people called us, all the MNLF commanders referred to us. We are their senior leaders, so they consulted. So I said, ‘No, we have no time to wage war.’

Q. Because they were reports that time that the MNLF will be moving around Mindanao, na merong … mag rereinforce.
A. There was none, because people consulted us. So we said, we have not prepared for war. It’s not easy to wage war, you know. We have to have a command conference to strategize, we have not done that.

Q. I want to ask you this question because I also asked this also of Nur, and Salamat Hashim, and Murad … how would you like history to judge you?
A. Well, to me, what I have decided to do is the best thing that I could do for our people. Rightly or wrongly it’s the best I could do for our people.

 [Peace Talk is a series of conversations on the Bangsamoro Peace Process with leaders from civil society, government and revolutionary fronts. Interviews with residents in conflict-affected areas in the Bangsamoro are in multimedia format]