When looking at the multitude of insurgent problems in the Philippines, one tends to overlook the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996 establishing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) for five provinces. MNLF founder Nur Misuari led the ARMM from 1996-2001, but became frustrated with Manila’s non-implementation of key parts of the agreement and with its interference in MNLF politics. In response, he staged an uprising in November 2001. While some supporters picked up arms in Sulu province, the MNLF leadership was able to prevent a widespread revolt. Misuari fled to Malaysia where he was detained. Arrested in the Philippines, he was never put on trial and today he remains under house arrest. The MNLF is woefully divided between the Isnaji, Islamic Command Council, Executive Council of 15 and the pro-Misuari factions. September 2, 2006 saw the 10th anniversary of the accord, and yet the MNLF continue to have many legitimate grievances. The Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) failed to implement entire sections of the agreement, starved the region of promised financial resources and wantonly interfered in its politics. There has been no true autonomy, making emotions in Mindanao and Sulu very raw.
The MNLF lobbied the government to attend a tripartite meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in February. The meeting, which was to be attended by the MNLF, GRP and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), was supposed to be an opportunity for the MNLF in an international setting to categorically list all of the government’s breaches of the agreement in an attempt to recommit the GRP to the peace effort. The GRP announced that it would not attend and has tried to buy time by calling on the MNLF to wait until the GRP concludes a separate peace agreement with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). If completed, the GRP-MILF accord will lead to the dissolutions of the 1996 agreement and the ARMM government and the drafting of a new organic charter in an inclusive process that will include the MILF, MNLF, civil society and traditional elites (The Jakarta Post, February 23). The MNLF was upset over the agreement and saw the unwillingness of the government to go to Jeddah as another sign of its treachery.
In February, Under Secretary of the Presidential Advisor for the Peace Process General Ramon Santos and Brigadier General Ben Dolorfino (himself a Muslim convert) were not allowed to leave an MNLF camp for two days. MNLF commander Ustadz Habier Malik refused to let the two leave until the GRP agreed to attend the tripartite talks (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 6). Some P450,000 (US$10,000) was paid to secure their release. MNLF armed camps have been emerging in the past year on Jolo Island, and the training of new members has continued. On top of that, some MNLF sub commanders have been providing sanctuary and support for members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, to whom they are bound by kinship and clan ties. In a region awash with small arms, there is palpable concern that the MNLF may quit the peace process entirely. Indeed, they feel morally justified in doing so. While bracing for cease-fire violations, few within the Philippine military believe that the MNLF could sustain an insurrection over a long period of time.
Both the GRP and MILF were taken aback as they assumed that the MNLF would give its full support to the agreement, which in its current draft form gives more to the Moro, including the legal right to secede in 2030. The MNLF, while stating that they “supported the peace process of their Muslim brothers,” made clear that the agreement could not come at the expense of, nor supersede, the 1996 “Final Peace Agreement.” The MNLF’s genuine unwillingness to work with the MILF is based on the false perception that they are still the vanguard revolutionary force of the Moro people. The MILF, for their part, see the MNLF as corrupt sell-outs. MNLF members have told this analyst that they doubted that the two organizations could ever really share power. It need not be zero-sum as the two organizations have a fairly clear demarcation in terms of ethnicity and territory.
The head of the GRP’s peace panel, Jesus Dureza, said that the hostage incident has “eroded” the government’s confidence in the MNLF. While the government has agreed to attend the tripartite meeting in May, it is expected to yield little and has shifted the onus to the MNLF, which is unable to determine factional representation and whether Nur Misuari should lead the delegation (Sun-Star, February 16).