Dealing with an angry Misuari

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. MNLF chair Nur Misuari declaring his break-up with the government in Indanan, Sulu, August 12. Photo by AFP

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. MNLF chair Nur Misuari declaring his break-up with the government in Indanan, Sulu, August 12.

Photo by AFP

(Editor's note: This article was first published last February, during the historic visit of  President Benigno Aquino III to the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is a rival organization of Nur Misuari's Moro National Liberation Front. Misuari's forces are now caught in a gun battle with government troops in Zamboanga City. Catch live updates here.)

MANILA, Philippines - Two days before President Benigno Aquino III's visit to a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) territory, a fuming Nur Misuari arrived in Manila, again accusing the government of derailing peace treaty agreements with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

"The government does not want peace in Mindanao at all because they would rather deal with the traitorous groups like the MILF," Misuari said.

The MILF, a breakaway group of MNLF, signed the historic Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) with the Aquino government in October 2012.

At the height of its strength, the MNLF itself entered into various peace deals, including the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. According to Misuari, the peace accord with the MILF negated the government's earlier peace deal with the MNLF, which faces unresolved issues until today.

Peace obstacles

Aquino took a swipe at critics of his government's peace efforts with the MILF, but stressed that his government is determined not to commit the same mistakes that his predecessors made.

"May ilan pa ring nagtatayo ng balakid upang hadlangan ang ating tagumpay." (There are still people who build obstacles to hinder our success), Aquino said in a speech on Monday, February 11, at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI) compound in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

President Aquino and MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met in the rebel group's territory to roll out Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a package of socio-economic programs that will hasten the transition of MILF communities following the signing of the peace accord.

Undersecretary Lesley Cordero of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary encouraged the MNLF to join the government in addressing gut issues in war-torn Mindanao.

"It's time for us to come together to work for peace. Services like health, education and livelihood are very basic. Communities of MNLF also need those services," Cordero said in an interview with Rappler.

In the framework agreement, the government and MILF agreed "to intensify development efforts for rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development of the Bangsamoro, and institute programs to address the needs of MILF combatants, internally displaced persons, and poverty-stricken communities.”

More people in Mindanao support the framework agreement, the annexes and the proposed basic law of Bangsamoro, Cordero claimed.

Diminished power

Cordero said that Sajahatra Bangsamoro seeks to empower people in MILF territories and nearby communities, but suggested that it also weakens the legitimacy of MNLF's claims.

"At some point when more people would want peace, their (MNLF) power will diminish. The government is not only offering peace but also concrete economic initiatives," Cordero said. "People would see who really has the legitimate cause to fight for. More people want to have a sustainable and lasting agreement," Cordero said.

Claiming that the MNLF still enjoyed a sizable following,  Misuari earlier said that about 17,000 armed MILF forces will rejoin the MNLF following the signing of the framework agreement.

The government refuted the claim, saying that when the peace accord was signed in 1996, the MNLF's strength was nearly 14,000 while the MILF grew into about 12,000 armed troops.

In the 1990's, about 5,000 MNLF forces were integrated into the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police based on government data. Since then, the group splintered into at least 3 factions led by Misuari, Muslimin Sema, and Habib Mujahab Hashim. Of the factions, Hashim and Misuari are the most vocal in opposing the peace deal with the MILF.

Struggling to keep his influence afloat, Misuari is running in May for ARMM governor – a post he once held – as an independent. He is up against the President's favored bet, ARMM officer-in-charge Mujiv Hataman, and former Sultan Kudarat Rep Pakung Mangudadatu of the United Nationalist Alliance. (Editor's note: Misuari lost to Hataman in the May 2013 elections, placing third.)

The recent deadly clashes between the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf Group were believed to be election-related, an allegation which Misuari denied.

Asserting influence

Beyond his bellicose stance, Misuari is also using MNLF's recognized status in the international Muslim community as another platform to air his sentiments.

Misuari has just arrived from a recently concluded summit of heads of government of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Cairo that called on MNLF and the Aquino government to address unresolved issued related to the autonomous region, revenue sharing, definition of strategic minerals and the transitional mechanism.

"We reiterate the need to resolve the issue of Muslims in Southern Philippines promptly. We urge the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to continue their efforts in order to find a solution to pending issues, consistent with the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement," the OIC said in a communique even as it welcomed the framework agreement with the MILF.

Since 1977 MNLF has enjoyed an observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest international organization of states after the United Nations. The Parliamentary Union of OIC Member States (PUIC) also granted MNLF the observer member status in 2012.

Misuari's pride

The 1996 Final Peace Agreement, which OIC brokered, is under review to resolve disagreements on the implementation of sensitive provisions of the peace pact.

"The government is making it sure that everything under previous peace agreements will be upheld if they are beneficial in the long term," Cordero said.

But government assurances would not easily appease Misuari. Also at stake is Misuari's pride, according to Rodelio Ambangan, Director of the Institute for Peace and Development Studies of the Southern Christian College in Cotabato.

"He (Misuari) felt betrayed because there is an ongoing monitoring of the final peace agreement which was not fully implemented," Ambangan said.

Ambangan explained that peace agreements have "ownership" issues, noting that Misuari's peace deal was displaced by the FAB.

Ambangan said that peace advocates in Mindanao are calling for "unity and solidarity among Bagsamoro stakeholders," including a dialogue between the MILF and the MNLF.

"They are bringing the agenda of the Bangsamoro. They should face the government with one agenda. After all, they both fight for right to self-determination," Ambangan said.

MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim has already expressed openness to dialogue with MNLF, but Misuari remains combative. - Rappler.com