COMMENT: Once… Then… Now by Patricio P. Diaz

Once, they were one – one in negotiating peace with the Philippine Government in Jakarta, Indonesia. Then, the temptation of power split them. Now, they are in disarray in reviewing the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. That's the MNLF story – divided into Misuari loyalists and Executive Council of the 15.

Once, the Philippine Government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos refused to negotiate with any faction of the splintered Moro Liberation Front as that would create a bigger problem. Then, the Government of President Fidel V. Ramos ignored Marcos' wisdom. Now, the Government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo faces the impending problem of two rivals' separate agreements over the same Bangsamoro territory and people.

That is the story of the Philippine Government's delicate position in negotiating separately with the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in its desire to put an end to the more than 30 years of rebellion in Mindanao.

Collision Course

At the beginning – 1968 to 1976 – there was only one MNLF with Nur Misuari as chairman and Salamat Hashim as vice chairman. It demanded independence for Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan from the Philippines.

However, in the peace negotiation in Tripoli, Libya in December 1976, the Organization of Islamic Conference persuaded the MNLF to settle for Autonomy– not for the entire Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan but for 13 provinces and their included cities. While the settlement was much against their desire, the MNLF could not say "NO" to the OIC, their patron.

In early 1977, the MNLF split into the Misuari and Salamat factions. According to reports, the Salamat faction was blaming Misuari for dropping the demand for independence, although there were also reports that the split was due to contrary orientations – Salamat being an Islamist and Misuari a secularist or nationalist.

In mid-1980s, the Salamat faction formally took the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Like the MNLF, its negotiating position was the Tripoli Agreement. But after rejecting the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, it firmed up its demand for Self-Determination, not Autonomy.

Under the 1996 FPA, the MNLF accepted Regional Autonomy as the full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement. The MILF, in negotiating with the Government abandoned the 1976 Tripoli Agreement for "Self-Determination" over a territory called "Bangsamoro Juridical Entity".

The 1996 FPA and impending GRP-MILF agreement are bound to collide head on because the MNLF's Regional Autonomy and the MILF's Bangsamoro Juridical Entity cover the same area – the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, except that the BJE will be ARMM plus some other Muslim-dominated areas contiguous with it.

Problem Real

In his speech read at the opening of the GRP-MNLF-OIC Tripartite Meeting in Jeddah last November 10, Misuari brought to the attention of the OIC the opinion of an American Embassy official, Stephen Worrobeck, that "any peace agreement that might be entered into in Kuala Lumpur between the GRP and the MILF will be illegal" as that will be super-imposing an international treaty over an essentially the same pre-existing treaty. (MindaNews, Nov. 11, 14)

Despite the displeasure he created, Misuari was right. Likened to a house, the ARMM was given to the MNLF under a contract without time limit; despite the contract, the house will be given to the MILF under another contract. It does not take an American to see the deceit.

After the announcement last Thursday, November 15, that the Philippine and MILF panels had agreed on the boundaries of the expanded ARMM to become the BJE, the MNLF protested through Interim Vice-Chairman Hatimil Hassan – that the agreement violated the 1996 FPA. (, November 17)

In deciding to give to the MILF the ARMM after this had been given to the MNLF through an earlier agreement, the Government ignored the maratabat or pride of the Muslims. The MNLF were proud of having secured the 1996 FPA for the Muslims. Replacing this with an agreement with the MILF – their rival — will make them lose face. Muslims will die for their maratabat.

Legally, before the BJE can supplant the ARMM, RA 9054 must first be repealed. The GRP-MILF agreement cannot do that. Will Congress do that? Will repealing RA 9054 abrogate the 1996 FPA? Maybe it will. But without its consent, that can send the MNLF on the warpath.

The Jakarta peace talk that produced the 1996 FPA was conducted by the OIC through its Ministerial Committee of the Eight; the on-going Kuala Lumpur GRP-MNLF is being facilitated by Malaysia, an OIC member state, with the cooperation, at the outset, of Libya, another OIC member state. Hence, both are OIC sponsored.

While its assistance is to be appreciated, does the OIC not see that by Malaysia's eagerness to be of help it is also the complicating a problem? This, too, should be asked of the Government: Does it not see that by offering the ARMM to the MILF it would deepen the antagonism and animosity between the two Moro Fronts?

The Only Solution

The puzzle craves for a solution. In fairness to the OIC, it means well for the Muslims and the Philippine Government. Despite its shortcomings, Manila has come to understand the Muslims and has been giving their problems more attention than before the rebellion flared up.

Hassan said: "We and our brothers in the MILF need to talk on that matter. There must be coordination to prevent any future problems." (, November 17)

Whether Hassan was articulating his personal opinion or the official position of the MNLF does not matter. That is the only solution to the problem now which could not have occurred had they heeded the wisdom of  negotiating as one that they were once asked to do.

Remember? Once, they were told by President Marcos to reunite as negotiating separately with the different factions would lead to more problems not to a solution. Once, too, the OIC urged them to reunite. They refused to.

In the 90-day peace talk in 1987, the MNLF would allow the MILF only as observers, not as panel members. In the Jakarta negotiation, the MILF opted to wait and see reserving its right to accept or reject the resulting agreement.

Then, they readily accepted President Ramos' proposal to have separate peace talks with them. Now, the MNLF has seen the problem. Has the MILF realized it, too?

On hindsight, did President Ramos in proposing separate talks and the OIC in fostering the talks intend to create a situation that would compel the MNLF and MILF to reunite? In real sense, disunity is at the root of the Muslim problem. They aspire to be one as Bangsamoro but they cannot sacrifice their tribal identities and differences.

It would be a blessing for the Muslims if after the signing of the GRP-MILF agreement, the MNLF and MILF will sit down to reconcile their separate agreements under the auspices of the Philippine Government and the OIC.

That is just a big "IF" but it can spell the difference between a united or splintered Bangsamoro nation. Once, they were one. Then, they splintered. Now, can they be one again?

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to