Making sense of the Conflict in Mindanao

Where did it all begin?

To those who are watching it on the news, reading about it on the Internet, hearing it on the radio while on your way to work or school, or a combination of all, one cannot help but ask the following questions:

Who is the MNLF? Who is Nur Misuari?
Why did they attacked Zamboanga?

These are just two of the most common yet profound questions one could ask ever since the crisis erupted more than seven days ago. This is by no means an authoritative resource on the matter, rather an attempt to bring into the discussion useful resources to help the casual reader or Googler, to make sense of it all.

Who is the MNLF?

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded by Prof Nur Misuari in 1969 with the objective of gaining independence of the Bangsamoro Land (Bangsamoro Nation or Mindanao Nation) from the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.

It has waged an armed struggle for independence until the signing of the the 1996 Final Peace Agreement which was brokered by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, between the MNLF as led by Nur Misuari and the GRP led by then President Fidel V. Ramos.

Why did they fight for an independent Bangsamoro Land?

As part of the Homestead program, from 1903 to the 1970s, during the American colonization of the Philippines, Filipinos who were looking for a new start migrated to Mindanao where the government gave away tracts of land virtually for free. However, these lands seemed to be for free because there were no existing land titling system at the time. So the natives of Mindanao, both Muslim and indigenous tribes felt that they were being systematically robbed of the lands they have long tilled and utilized.

President Marcos then formed the ILAGA, a Christian militia which claimed to be defending Christian homes from purported attacks by Muslims. The MNLF has waged an armed struggle since then, to regain what they have lost and to uplift the lives of the Moro people.

Timelines of the MNLF-GRP, MILF-GRP Peace Process

The major agreements that marked the long and winding peace process between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the MNLF are as follows:

1976 Tripoli Agreement

The Organisation of Islamic Conference interceded and helped broker a peace agreement between the MNLF and the GRP. The result was the first peace deal that partially ended the hostilities in Mindanao. It recognized the MNLF and its leader Nur Misuari as the representative of the Moro people and further provided that autonomy be given the certain provinces to allow Muslims to put up their own schools, system of government and justice system. More importantly to allow them to exploit the resources of the rich lands within the said domain.

1989 – Republic Act 6734 enacted into law

In pursuant to the Tripoli Agreement, RA 6734 was enacted into law which created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

1996 Final Peace Agreement

After years and three rounds of Exploratory Peace Talks brokered by the OIC, the Final Peace Agreement was signed on September 2, 1996 between the GRP and the MNLF. It was a comprehensive agreement which provided for the further realization of autonomy for the ARMM.

Since the signing of the FPA in 1996, numerous rounds of talks and meetings were held in order to flesh out and complete the terms of agreement set forth to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao.

However, in between, skirmishes and clashes between government forces and the MNLF and its splinter groups like the MILF, Abu Sayyaf and others have continued.

A more detailed timeline of the peace processes between the GRP and MNLF and MILF respectively can be found here and here.

What happened since the 1996 Final Peace Agreement?

Here’s an analysis of the Final Peace Agreement signed between the GRP and the MNLF back in 1996 by Ms Amina Rasul of Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (sourced from the PCIJ website):

Why did the MNLF attacked Zamboanga?

With the historical background set, we come now the issue at hand, why all of a sudden, the people of Zamboanga and the entire nation was greeted with gunfire and hostilities from MNLF forces?

Recall that back in August this year, MNLF Chair Nur Misuari declared for independence of Mindanao which the government downplayed as ‘for MNLF in Jolo only’. Other MNLF commanders loyal to Misuari followed suit and began to move accordingly. The reason for Misuari’s declaration of independence which according to some news reports included Palawan, Basilan and the Zamboanga peninsula, is the Philippine Government’s purported termination of the tripartite review of the 1996 peace talks he signed with then President Fidel Ramos.

Which makes sense, because from the time the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the MILF and the GRP was unveiled to the public back in 2012, little was heard of from the MNLF which as per the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, was the recognized representative of the Bangsamoro when it comes to negotiating peace with the central government in Manila.

Ignoring Misuari, the MNLF and the 1996 FPA with all of its subsequent negotiations and talks and fast-tracking the peace deal with the MILF may have finally blown up in President Aquino’s face and has threatened the success of the FAB with the MILF, as Rigoberto Tiglao puts it:

The storming of Zamboanga City by forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that started Monday marks the unraveling of President Aquino’s injudicious, even reckless roadmap to end the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao.

Those were heady days for Aquino in 2011, that he thought he could win the Nobel Peace Prize in the following year by dramatically flying secretly to Tokyo to meet with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front(MILF) chairman Jaafar Gazali for the unveiling of his peace plan for the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao.

He promised to turn over to the MILF their own state in Mindanao, and he thought that his popularity was high that he could have the Constitution amended to allow this. He would buy off Congress to pass the necessary law – the Bangsamoro Organic Law—by tripling the level of lawmakers’ pork-barrel from the P7.8 billion of his predecessor to P24.8 billion.

He forgot, or refused to see the implications though. There was such an organization as the MNLF, which the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1976 as well as the Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos regimes had recognized as the legitimate representative of the Muslim insurgents.
The MNLF: Ignored in Aquino’s peace plan, now a problem.

How to move forward?

The latest MNLF attack in Zamboanga is but a reminder to all of us, especially the government that if there were to be lasting peace in Mindanao, all stakeholders must be involved in the peace process. What appears to be a ‘divide-and-conquer’ plan of the Aquino Administration in having separate peace processes with the MILF and MNLF will simply not work.

As Soliman M. Santos,Jr ((SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR., A.B. History cum laude (UP), LL.B. (UNC), LL.M. (Melb); Filipino human rights and IHL lawyer; legislative consultant and legal scholar; peace advocate, researcher and writer esp. for and on the Mindanao peace process, with several books on this, inc. those cited in this article. He is presently Presiding Judge of the 9th Municipal Circuit Trial Court (MCTC) of Nabua-Bato, and Acting Presiding Judge of the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) of Balatan, both in Camarines Sur province of the Bicol region southeast of Manila.)) wrote back in March 2013 cautions:

The next substantive step in that road map is the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by the Transition Commission (TC), its members already in place. But it has been noted that there is “_no MNLF member_” in the TC, as “_the MNLF chose not to endorse a member_” ((See TJ Burgonio, “Bangsamoro Transition Panel Formed,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 26, 2013, p. A2. There is, however, a TC member Fatmawati Salapuddin who is an MNLF member but does not represent it in the TC. Surprisingly, not even a representative from the MILF-friendly, Cotabato-based Sema faction of the MNLF was designated either by the GPH or the MILF for TC membership.”)) designation either by the GPH or the MILF. This should be a matter of major concern, sounding alarm bells, because an antagonistically divided Bangsamoro stakeholdership in the BBL will simply not do for its viability and sustainability.

Things are already at the stage of drafting the organic law for a new autonomous political entity for the Bangsamoro based on a peace agreement, yet a significant Bangsamoro stakeholder, the MNLF (with a constituency in the South-western archipelagic half of the entity’s core territory) is currently “not in the same boat,” and even currently opposing it. This has to be sorted out before Bangsamoro autonomous arrangements are “entrenched” into law. But the definitive sorting out of the two tracks represented by the MILF/FAB and the MNLF/1996 FPA is _not clearly indicated in the FAB road map_ now being followed. And yet it has become increasingly clear that Bangsamoro unity, with MILF-MNLF unity as the litmus test, should already be treated as a goal in itself of the peace process ((To draw from the title of the article of Ryan D. Rosauro, “New peace goal: Bangsamoro unity,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 13, 2013, p. A13.”)) and no less than part of solving the Bangsamoro problem.

This would be not only a matter of sorting out two peace agreements (the FAB / comprehensive agreement and the 1996 FPA) but also the relations between the MILF and the MNLF. The newly appointed TC would not be able to do this, not only because there is no MNLF member there, but also because the said sorting out is not in its mandate, even if there may be TC members who know the MNLF perspectives. The said sorting out can only be done by a GPH-MILF-MNLF mechanism mainly to sort out the two peace agreements and a MNLF-MILF unity mechanism to sort out the intra-Moro (some might say “Moro-Moro”) relations. In both mechanisms, it would appear that any necessary mediation (and it appears to be necessary) would have to be by the OIC. It cannot be by Malaysia anymore because of the MNLF’s aversion to Malaysia, exacerbated by the current Sabah stand-off. This is where Indonesia, as an OIC member (its PCSP chair at that) mediator that appears to be the most commonly acceptable to the GPH, MILF and MNLF, could come in. Indonesia would be more commonly acceptable than the OIC-OSG because of the MNLF’s perceived hold there. The OIC has, of course, already proposed the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum (BCF), which the MILF has accepted but the MNLF not yet. Aside from this, the two Moro liberation fronts should be able to hold a dialogue and negotiate even just between themselves, without an OIC mediator. There is also the just as important domestic intra-Moro effort of Bangsamoro civil society to work for MNLF-MILF unity. ((“See, for example, Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, “A Proposal to Enhance Bangsamoro Solidarity,” [adopted April 26, 2009 during the Bangsamoro Solidarity Summit and Validation Workshop, Hotel Camila, Pagadian City.]”))

Actually, as early as 2000, a Filipino political scientist once wrote about the need for a three-cornered “GRP-MNLF/MILF peace process” leading to “a new peace agreement involving the GRP, MNLF and MILF.” ((“Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, “Three-cornered Diplomatic Battle in Kuala Lumpur,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 25, 2000.”)) Filipino-American academic’s proposal in 2004 was to establish a GRP-MNLF-MILF Commission on Bangsamoro self-determination with an MNLF-MILF working group within it, to review the existing ARMM and determine what key changes may be necessary. ((Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, “Ancestral Domain: Territory, Governance, Culture and the Quest for Bangsamoro Self- Determination” (Paper prepared for the Philippine Facilitation Project, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., November 2004).”)) So the OIC’s 2012 call to “develop a mechanism between MNLF, MILF and GPH to oversee the implementation of these two agreements” is not really a new idea. The unofficial or semi-official MILF comment against this, “as [an] unnecessary mechanism that will only complicate the gains of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” is understandable, given those gains and the limited time frame of its road map.But these gains could also come to naught if the MNLF problem (to put it bluntly as that) is not solved. Better to address this problem now early in the transition rather than as a bigger problem later down the road. This urgent task should have its own road map, which of course should interlink with the FAB road map, and thus contribute thereto. Even road maps can be works in progress. If there are to be institutions and mechanisms of Bangsamoro self-governance, there too should be institutions and mechanisms of Bangsamoro unity.

Islamic diplomacy, or more precisely Muslim entity mediators led by the OIC, has a key role to play in helping achieve the necessary Bangsamoro unity for the peace process. But they themselves need all the help (or push) they can get for this. Among others, the non-Muslim entities in the ICG, like Japan and the international NGOs, should consider what they might contribute to a particularly urgent task of addressing the MILF-MNLF unity problem in the transition. There is Islamic diplomacy, but there is also the usual international diplomacy that can address this problem. The mediators and the parties themselves in the GPH-MILF peace negotiations need now more than ever to augment their peace efforts of mediation and negotiation with diplomatic efforts mainly in the arena of the OIC and its key members for the Mindanao peace process.

As of this writing, the government has rejected Nur Misuari’s offer of a ceasefire, which could lead to a return to the negotiating table now that they have gotten the attention of the government and the public, and instead opted to pursue military actions against the remaining MNLF forces in Zamboanga.

Enough has been said that there can be no lasting peace in Mindanao as long not all stakeholders are gathered around the negotiating table. For now, peace remains an elusive dream for all.

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