Misuari, myths and the MNLF

He speaks as if he has not failed his own people. He talks as if he had taken good care of their needs. 

How many else are like him who has put self and ego above community? How many else are like him in a region once proud and rich but which now thrives on its homegrown industry called violence? 

How could this man — and others like him — face us, blame the world, society, and history for what essentially has been squandered opportunity? Wasn't he given every chance to rectify what needed to be rectified? Wasn't he offered the gubernatorial post of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) on a silver platter in July 1996, even before his group could sign a peace agreement with the Ramos government? Wasn't his separatist movement given all the resources and assistance it needed and wanted after it signed the final deal in September 1996?

The past is an easy recourse for those who have failed. Nur Misuari basks in the past and, unfortunately, so do some of us.  

One former government official said in a recent TV talk show that the Zamboanga siege could have been prevented had the Aquino government paid closer attention to Misuari. He forgot to say Misuari has been getting attention for more than two decades now. Cory Aquino first did the honors on Sept 6, 1986, when she went all the way to Jolo to meet him and return the salute of his armed troops. Constantly threatened by military coups and transition problems, however, Ms Aquino failed to sign a peace pact with the MNLF. It took her successor, retired general Fidel V Ramos, to seal a deal with the rebel firebrand.

It is worth recalling how Misuari negotiated that deal. Because if the 1996 peace agreement is infirm, that's largely due to how it was negotiated. 

Misuari held peace talks with the Ramos government with clear tactical goals in mind: the MNLF should take control of the regional government; the MNLF should be given a piece of the pie in the bureaucracy; the MNLF should be provided livelihood projects. Ramos had the same tactical goals, too — to pull the MNLF into the mainstream through political and economic concessions. He did this in two ways: set up government structures to accommodate the MNLF and lure them to electoral politics by promising to support them in the ARMM elections.

Was ARMM even part of the 1996 peace agreement? No. The MNLF loathed ARMM; they joined the peace talks precisely to kill it and replace it with a provisional government. This is why it pushed for the establishment of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), envisioned as the transition authority towards a powerful and more independent regional government, similar to what the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is negotiating now with the Aquino administration. 

When both parties entered the final stage of the peace negotiations, Mindanao politicians, fearful of a powerful SPCPD, campaigned hard to weaken it. As the final provisions were being hammered out, the MNLF refused to accept a "toothless" SPCPD. The mostly Catholic power brokers in Mindanao, on the other hand, branded the proposed SPCPD as a provisional government in disguise.

A deadlock followed, and Ramos dispatched Misuari's former University of the Philippines buddy, then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres, to the Middle East to ask Misuari to persuade the MNLF to resume the talks. It was in Dubai where the "package deal" was offered to Misuari. The MNLF would accept a powerless SPCPD; in return the rebel leader would run unopposed as ARMM governor. 

On July 8, 1996, before any final agreement could be signed and despite warnings from his MNLF comrades that this was a trap, Misuari registered as a voter in Jolo. Malacañang by that time had managed to convince Congress to postpone the ARMM polls from March 1996 to September that same year. In my previous interview with Torres, he recalled that moment when Misuari filled up his voter's certificate as a prelude to his gubernatorial candidacy.

"Ruben, is this surrender?" Misuari asked him. Torres said, "I pitied him at that point. I told him, of course not. It's just a scrap of paper. You can withdraw it anytime and it will then mean nothing if you resume your revolution."

Misuari would later demand that he be named head of the SPCPD. Even Indonesia, an MNLF supporter, was skeptical. They feared the two agencies would divide Misuari's attention. True enough, soon after the peace agreement was signed and he became governor of ARMM and head of the SPCPD, Misuari came face to face with the nightmare of running a government. 

MISUARI. Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari inspects his armed followers in one of the group's camps in Indanan, Sulu. He declares he is breaking away from the government because they have been sidelining his group.

AFP file photo

Internal revolt

The demands of the bureaucracy bored him; he preferred to travel abroad or stay in a Manila hotel and come to appointments 4 hours late. In the end, his long and frequent absences turned ARMM into what it's always been: mismanaged, corrupt, unable to serve the Bangsamoro people.

Meantime, the SPCPD, tasked to facilitate socio-development projects in Mindanao, could not hit the ground running, powerless as it was, and confronted with roadblocks thrown its way by anti-MNLF executives in Mindanao. The MNLF knew it signed an agreement that paved the way for a weak SPCPD. But because of the protests against the original vision for the council and the enticements dangled before them, they gave in — at their peril.

By the time the SPCPD's 3-year term was about to expire in 1999, Misuari was faced with an internal revolt. As I write this, I vividly remember all of them — their anger, their hurt, their harsh words for their chairman, their deep sense of regret over bungled chances. 

You have to understand: MNLF leaders are most articulate when angry. They plotted to oust Misuari as chairman, conniving with some government officials along the way. They had wanted to do it earlier, but since he was both ARMM governor and SPCPD chairman, ousting him also spelled political death for the MNLF. Thus they planned to give him a graceful exit through a law that would ban him from seeking re-election. The MNLF leaders were convinced he would not win another bid anyway. And the SPCPD was also about to end.

The astute Misuari of course found this out so he called all his leaders to a meeting in Zamboanga and let them sign a petition of support saying he was the "life and soul" of the movement. They signed, including some who were part of the ouster plot. Such was — and is — the mythical charm of this man. 

Over the years, the MNLF splintered into factions. Muslimin Sema would become mayor of Cotabato City and officially replace him as chairman of the MNLF, a move never recognized by Misuari. The soft-spoken Melham Alam, whom I met in one of Zambonga's coastal villages in 1999, formed the breakaway Islamic Command Council. Parouk Hussin also once headed the faction composed of MNLF's top leaders. Some disgruntled members joined the Abu Sayyaf while others stayed in the mainstream with jobs or livelihood projects.

But the MNLF's mass base remained where they were before the 1996 peace agreement because of the failure of administrations tasked to serve them and their leaders who betrayed them. They remained in poor villages struggling to make both ends meet, isolated from the new world, and thwarted by limited access to basic government services.  

To them, Misuari remained their savior. A savior who has repeatedly failed them, yes, but a savior who might just bring them to the promised land.

Misuari knows this, and he has exploited this to the hilt. Whenever he got sidelined he would again go to this mass base, scream independence, and pander to their basic needs. We have a stake in this land we once owned, he would tell them. And they would  nod in agreement. 

If these villages were to become modern local governments run by honest and competent leaders, Misuari would have no audience. 

So the challenge isn't simply to make him irrelevant, but to constantly remind him – and ourselves — that he blew it. And blew it badly. - Rappler.com

Glenda M. Gloria wrote, with Marites Dañguilan Vitug, "Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion from Mindanao," an award-winning book on the Muslim rebellion in the Philippines first published in 1999.

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .