Archive for the ‘Moro Islamic Liberation Front’ Category

President Joseph Estrada

It is a fundamental principle in international law that states must mutually not intervene in each others’ internal or domestic affairs.  Today, former President Joseph Estrada decried the role of Malaysia in the Philippine government’s negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  The negotiations led to the signing of a Framework Agreement last October 15, 2012; the agreement is hoped to lead to lasting peace in Mindanao. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak witnessed the signing in Malakanyang Palace.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

Estrada criticized the Philippine government obliquely for allowing a foreign government to intervene in the country’s “internal problems.”   Malaysia hosted the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur and provided troops for the International Monitoring Team established to enforce the ceasefire between the belligerents.  The Malaysian-led IMT is composed of contingents from the governments of Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, Norway, and the European Union who since 2004 has been tasked to monitor the implementation of the security, civilian protection, humanitarian, rehabilitation, socio-economic, and development aspects of the GPH-MILF peace process.

Now that we have laid down the facts, let us deconstruct foreign intervention.  While sovereignty is a key concept in international law, there is much debate among international relations theorists and international law experts.  It is a key property of states in the international system.  Without sovereignty, an entity is not a state and will not be recognized as such by all other full-fledged states.

What Estrada has in mind is a hermetically-sealed state (ala North Korea?) that has full control over its domestic affairs.  This is a narrow-minded idea.  In truth, states are not fully sovereign since they are inter-dependent.  States will find it necessary to enter into agreements or sign treaties with other states for mutual benefit.  Then Senator Joseph Estrada voted not to renew the Military Bases Agreement with the United States in 1991; together with his Senate colleagues’ votes, the US military had to close down its bases in Subic and Clark.  Then President Joseph Estrada approved the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), an executive agreement that governed the presence of American troops in the Philippines while in military exercises (called Balikatan) with Filipino soldiers.  VFA was not a treaty and did not require Senate ratification.

American and Filipino soldiers in a military exercise

Surely, the presence of foreign soldiers on one’s soil may be construed as foreign intervention; or worse, a foreign invasion?  It is not for the obvious reason that this presence, this ‘intervention’ is allowed, or is invited by the host country.

Malaysia did not simply barge in and insinuated itself in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF.  Its participation was sought after by the negotiating parties.  The history of internal conflict resolution shows the important role third parties like Malaysia play as honest brokers.  Peace in Mindanao is also to its national interest since conflict always has negative externalities on neighboring areas.  Earlier, Indonesia under President Suharto played the same role in the negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).   Then Vice President Joseph Estrada did not raise a peep about Indonesia’s participation.

President Suharto of Indonesia

On another front, the negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF) was always done in European locations (Brussels, The Hague, and Oslo) but Estrada never raised the bogey of foreign intervention before.

So the question is why would Estrada train his guns on Malaysia’s role in the MILF-Philippine government talks?  I do not have a full answer but I may have the pieces of the puzzle.  There is no love lost between Estrada and the MILF.  When Estrada’s political star was fading due to corruption, he tried to divert attention by launching full-scale attacks on MILF camps and capturing them.  Salt was rubbed on open wounds when he allowed himself to be photographed while dining on roasted pork with Philippine army soldiers within the bombed ruins of a mosque.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim

However, there may be more to this story.  It is known that Estrada is a very good friend of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.  While he was president, he irritated Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad for filing trumped-up charges and jailing Anwar.  Strictly speaking, the Anwar affair can be considered an internal Malaysian question.  Estrada justified his support for Anwar as a question of international human rights protection.  He could be however accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Malaysia by giving Anwar a platform to criticize the Malaysian government. In August 2011, Anwar came to the Philippines to speak in a forum organized by Estrada.  In that forum, Anwar warned Kuala Lumpur against tampering with elections and said the “Arab Spring” proved that popular clamor for democracy could not be suppressed.

At the end of the day, sovereignty and non-interference cannot be invoked at one’s convenience.


Philippine Marines in Mindanao

The peace between the Philippine government and the MNLF (established by the 1996 FPA) is at best an imperfect peace.  While large-scale hostilities have stopped, frustrations and complaints have been repeatedly raised by the mujahideen.

At the local level, some MNLF mass-based communities became ‘peace and development communities’ benefiting from livelihood, cooperatives, and other projects with funds coming from international and foreign development organizations.  Yet according to Santos (2010a), the MNLF felt that the peace process, particularly Phase 1, was being concluded unilaterally, and that its important socio-economic development elements were not being satisfactorily implemented.  The introduction of Phase 2 was signalled by the 2001 New Organic Act for the ARMM (Republic Act No. 9054) which the MNLF saw as violating aspects of the 1996 peace agreement, notably control over strategic minerals.  It viewed the expanded ARMM (to include Basilan province and Marawi City) as too weak to address even basic health and education needs in some ARMM provinces (which are admittedly among the poorest in the country.

MNLF fighters

Frustrations with the perceived failure to implement the peace agreement and Misuari’s feeling that he was being eased out of his positions of authority in the ARMM and MNLF sparked an outbreak of hostilities between the government and Misuari’s forces in Sulu and Zamboanga in November 2001.  These developments led to Misuari’s arrest.  The MNLF leader started to view the peace agreement as a shackle from which the MNLF would be better off freed to pursue a new phase of struggle for independence.

MNLF leader Nur Misuari

To be sure, warlord clans such as the Ampatuans beholden to the central government in Manila took over control of the ARMM largely through the active support of Malakanyang during Arroyo’s tenure.  The MNLF had its own share of mistakes, including a failure to maintain or recreate itself either as a politico-military mass organization or as a political party.  Concessions, co-optation, divide-and-rule, demobilization, splits, and worse, political defeat or marginalization through its own mismanagement of the ARMM (and its funds) have degraded the organization to a moribund status.

The leaders of the Ampatuan clan

Thus it could be said that the MNLF lost both the war and the peace.  Since then, splits have further weakened the movement.  The MNLF (Misuari faction) showed signs of revitalization through armed hostilities with government in February and November 2005.  This residual hostility was the result of the failure to integrate a number of armed fighters (and their relatives) into the Republic’s security forces.[1]  To the extent that the MNLF has not returned to the battlefield and has not conducted conventional warfare as before, one can argue that the 1996 peace agreement was successful.  To the extent that legitimate grievances are not fully addressed, then the peace is imperfect.

Abu Sayyaf bandits

The weakness of a still armed MNLF has helped spawned more aggressive anti-state rivals (Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF] and the Abu Sayyaf) as well as allowed conservative and reactionary elements like the Ampatuans (is the incumbent ARMM governor Mujiv Hataman, who is reportedly involved in the murder of a congressman from Basilan province, any better?) to take control of regional autonomy structures.  To that extent, peace remained elusive in Muslim Mindanao.   As a result, the Philippine government is currently engaged in a multi-pronged effort to maintain peace and order combat the Abu Sayyaf and other criminals, and at the same time to forge peace with the MILF and perfect the peace with the MNLF.  On the agenda of the GPH-MNLF talks to implement the 1996 FPA are the key issues including amendments to the organic law of the Muslim autonomous region (RA 9054), the Bangsamoro development assistance fund (BDAF), and suitable formulas for revenue sharing.  These are among the challenges confronting the Noynoy Aquino government.


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[1] As vice president of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) in the late 1990s, I participated in the vetting of these MNLF commanders and fighters.  The latter wanted to be commissioned as officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or the Philippine National Police (PNP).  However, they could not all be accommodated since most of them were illiterate and nearing the mandatory retirement age.

MNLF fighter

Following the 1996 agreement, the MNLF had effectively demobilized from combat mode but had not fully disarmed—an arrangement that has been acceptable to both sides. The 1976 Tripoli Agreement provided for a ceasefire, amnesty, release of political prisoners, and MNLF integration with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).  However, no mention is made of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).  This absence was carried over to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA).  President Ramos explained they did not raise the issue of disarming the MNLF:  “Forcing the issue would have simply led to an unresolvable impasse.  The strategic objective of having a final peace agreement signed – with its attendant political, economic, social and cultural benefits – was more important than belaboring any issue that struck deeply into the honour and prestige of the other party” (Ramos 1996, pp. 102-103).

Perhaps, what President Ramos had in mind the commonplace belief that the Moro (especially the  Tausog) male loved his firearm more than his wife.  In his own account of the peace talks, Ramos showed sensitivity to Misuari’s concerns:

“Chairman Misuari himself expressed constant worry over the prospect of losing his men to other militant armed groups if Government could not help them during the transition period.  It was in this light that the MNLF was pinning its hopes on Government to accommodate its bid to have a large special Regional Security Force – both to allay their anxieties over security and to give more teeth to the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD).

Another sensitive issue was the “demobilization” of MNLF forces not absorbed into the Armed Forces.  The issue touched the sense of dignity of MNLF fighters very deeply, and it had to be set aside in the meantime that we were planning for the Final Round of Talks.  The MNLF was not merely concerned over its loss of face in “demobilizing” its fighters; it also worried about the related and concrete problem of their livelihood and basic needs.  Other sensitive issues were the registration and licensing of firearms and the matter of ranks and qualifications for military service of MNLF members who would be taken into the Armed Forces” (Ramos 1996, pp. 86-87).

President Fidel Ramos

In the end, the 1996 FPA did not try to disarm or demobilize the entire MNLF fighting force.  It instead provided for “a special socio-economic, cultural and educational program to cater to MNLF forces not absorbed into the AFP, PNP and the SRSF[1]” (Final Peace Agreement 1996, para. 20a).  A number of international agencies including the United Nations (UN) Multi-Donor Program (MDP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through their ‘Peace and Development Communities’ (PDCs) and ‘Livelihood Enhancement for Peace’ (LEAP), respectively, claimed to have reintegrated more than 50,000 MNLF members between 1997 and 2004, though this figure is likely to refer to the MNLF mass base instead of fighters alone (Santos 2010b).

MILF leader Ebrahim Al Haj Murad

Many MNLF fighters turned to farming for various reasons including a belief only those with connections benefited from the FPA.  Others formed criminal groups while many joined the MILF.  Then MNLF vice chair for military affairs Al Haj Murad  Ebrahim estimated a surge in MILF strength from 8,000 in 1996 to 15,420 in mid-1999, and in firearms from 10,227 at year-end 1998 to 11,351 by June 1999 (Makinano and Lubang 2000).

But what of the MNLF integration program itself? Alcala Hall (2009) identified previous studies on the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) integration into the government’s uniformed services (including Ferrero (2000) and Jailor (2003)).  She said these studies assess the process largely on how it contributes to the prospects of long-term peace in Mindanao (Alcala-Hall 2009). Ferrero (2000) concluded that the actual integration (into the army and the police) did not significantly demobilize nor disarm the MNLF. The integration included but a small fraction of the estimated MNLF strength (estimates vary across the literature from 17,000 to 50,000) at the time the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) was signed. Moreover, because the integration process allowed substitution by kin of ex-combatants, the number of demobilized MNLF personnel is lower than the 7,500 total provided in the agreement (Alcala-Hall 2009). There were no other avenues for integration as the provision in RA 9054 for a separate Special Regional Security Force (SRSF) to include ex- MNLF fighters have not been carried out. Nor has the integration program made any substantial dent in the number of firearms under MNLF’s possession.

Although the program required the submission of a gun as a prerequisite to recruitment and selection, in reality the integrees procured the guns they submitted elsewhere (or it is their own, rather than the movement’s). The under valuation of guns within the government guns-for cash (BALIK-BARIL) program also meant many integrees logically would found it more lucrative to sell their more high-powered guns in the black market and procure a lesser caliber, less costly weapon to submit to the government. Others have even argued that the program has led to the further arms proliferation in Mindanao. In joining the army, many integrees are said to have taken loans (which they have now access to) and used the loan proceeds to buy more weapons. Personal/family security defined in terms of gun ownership is said to be characteristic of the Tausug male culture (Alcala-Hall 2009).

There are some positive accomplishments though.  Some MNLF 7, 500 fighters (or their proxies[2]) have been integrated with the army and police, representing at least half of its peak strength.  The integrees proved their loyalty to their new employers helped largely by improved incomes.[3] To some, this integration has been hailed as the most successful aspect of the implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA) (Santos 2010b).  One of the complaints raised by no less than the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was the government’s deployment of MNLF integrees in combat duties against MILF fighters (OIC 2006 in Santos 2010b).  However, this may be a way to test their ultimate loyalty to the government.  Even if he considers integration to be the most successful aspect of the FPA’s implementation, Santos (2010b) believes that the MNLF integration program was partially successful.  He argued that only complete disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) will peace reign in Mindanao.

[1] Special Regional Security Forces

[2] Ferrer (2000) reports that a significant number of MNLF integrees into the PNP—almost 90 percent of the first batch—were not MNLF fighters themselves but their proxies, i.e., sons and nephews.  This should not be surprising since many of the original MNLF fighters were already old.

[3] Citing comments of Prof. Octavio Dinampo on an earlier draft of his chapter, Santos (2010b) reports that “in February 2005 there were reports of integrees going AWOL and fighting on the MNLF side: according to one local source, 283 of the integrees who were truly former MNLF fighters are back with the MNLF, while ‘100 plus’ more went AWOL without returning to the MNLF.”

Philippine military armor in Mindanao alongside civilians on a horse

While required, signing a peace agreement does not automatically keep the peace among combatants.  In truth, two agreements—the 1976 Tripoli Agreement (under President Ferdinand Marcos) and the 1987 Jeddah Accord (under President Corazon Aquino)—led nowhere.  True, there were occasional skirmishes and dissatisfaction amongst some MNLF fighters.  In addition, a key provision of the 1996 FPA, that the MNLF’s right of representation in the national government and in all organs of state—was never implemented.  Nonetheless, the 1996 FPA could be deemed a success.  Among the key indicators of success are the absence of large-scale warfare between the MNLF and government troops, the co-optation of the MNLF leadership into a pre-existing autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu islands, the integration of many MNLF combatants into the government’s security services, and the release of local and foreign funds for the region’s development.

Nur Misuari

However, the Asian financial crisis adversely affected the Philippine government’s capacity to provide funds and led to discontent within MNLF ranks.  To be fair to the Philippine government, MNLF leader Nur Misuari was not blameless with his profligate and biased spending.  He was continuously travelling within the country and abroad with a huge entourage and concentrated resources for his fellow-Tausogs. Ultimately, the MNLF leadership may be successful rebels but were poor administrators.

The power asymmetry against the MNLF is the bottom-line reason for the success of the peace agreement. Militarily, the MNLF had reached its peak in the 1970s and lost its fierce fighting edge.  It remained a stubborn and enduring military force (Vitug and Gloria 2000).  The MNLF cannot credibly commit to renege on the 1996 Final Peace Agreement and return to full-scale warfare since it was weakened by splits, casualties, desertions, tribal differences, etc.  Its foreign supporters and backers are not keen to support a military effort (Iribani 2006; Vitug and Gloria 2000).  In that sense, it did not have trump cards.

Even the remaining MNLF fighters were not threats credible enough for the Philippine government to offer concessions.  These combatants tried a mini-rebellion in November 2001 after Misuari lost his positions in the autonomous regional body but it was nipped in the bud.  Misuari escaped to Malaysia but was handed back to Philippine authorities by Kuala Lumpur.  Upon his return to the Philippines, he was incarcerated. In 2008, he was allowed to post bail and talks to finalize implementation of the 1996 FPA were resumed by the Arroyo and Aquino governments.

Another imbalance characterizes the relationship between the MNLF and the Philippine government.  The MNLF’s constituency expects it to produce the deliverables promised in the 1996 FPA.  If it fails to do so, the MNLF loses its political luster and its followers may gravitate to its rivals, specially the MILF.  The Philippine government is not in the same predicament.  It has already delivered a clear good–cessation of hostilities—save for a few skirmishes here and there.  That appears to be what matters most to ordinary Filipinos.  As long as hostilities do not resume, ordinary Filipinos will not normally care if the Philippine government kept its side of the bargain in the 1996 FPA.  In effect, there is greater political pressure on the MNLF than on the Philippine government.

Since 1986, both sides observed a ceasefire agreement.  So both MNLF and Philippine government troops have not fought each other for a decade before a final agreement was reached.  Agreeing to a ceasefire before a comprehensive agreement can be interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakness.

Prior to the assumption of talks to finalize implementation of the 1996 FPA, the MNLF also lost traction vis-à-vis the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) largely due to Misuari’s plummeting fortunes and splits within the organization.  With two ascendant interlocutors, Misuari’s faction played the role of heckler and spoiler.  At times, it raised bids to unify with the MILF and repair splits within the MNLF.  Heckling and spoiling are tactics of a party that feels it was being neglected by another notwithstanding an outstanding agreement.  Unification bids are attempts to enlarge the pie that will eventually be shared by Bangsamoro people.  They also used to communicate to government that it is negotiating with a stronger force.  These tactics did not help the MNLF one bit and like a chastened schoolboy, Misuari returned to talks with government.

In hindsight, it can be said that there was diminished urgency on the part of the Philippine government to fully implement the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) after it was signed in September 1996.  A good part of the MNLF leadership and fighters were incorporated into the Muslim regional bodies and government security forces.  The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s compelled government to husband its resources carefully.  As long as Misuari and his commanders were comfortably ensconced in their offices, the MNLF will not rebel again.

President Joseph Estrada

Attention will soon be directed elsewhere–to the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF), a split from the MNLF.  In 2000, President Joseph Estrada launched several attacks on MILF camps to shore up his sagging political fortunes in Manila.  While government troops succeeded in capturing some MILF camps, Estrada was unable to win a decisive military victory over the MILF.  Furthermore, he also enraged not a few Muslims for insensitively eating pork with government troops within the ruins of a mosque.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

The all-out war tack of Estrada was changed by the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  With Misuari was in prison and the MNLF weaken by further splits, Arroyo endeavored to have the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) controlled by warlords who could deliver votes in her favor (Lara 2010).  Arroyo concentrated in delivering a peace agreement with the MILF—the so-called MOA-AD.  When the MOA-AD was rejected by the Supreme Court, Arroyo’s government released Misuari from detention and started talks to for the final implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA).  These talks are being continued by the government of President Benigno Aquino III through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), headed by Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles.

The Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are still engaged in talks for the final implementation of the September 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA), some sixteen (16) years after FPA’s inking.  The FPA was signed to formally end twenty four (24) of armed hostilities between the two parties.  The relative weakness of the MNLF and the preferences of its foreign supporters in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) brought it to the negotiating table.    The MNLF, specially its Chairman Nurallaji Misuari, signed on with the FPA largely because of political side-payments.  The 1996 peace agreement was initially deemed a success with the absence of large-scale warfare, the incorporation of the MNLF leadership into a regional government (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), release of local and foreign funds for the region’s development, and the integration of many MNLF fighters into the military and police forces.  However, as the shortcomings of Misuari and his comrades as administrators became known, the political stock of the MNLF plummeted.  Misuari was removed as ARMM head in 2001 and his ouster ignited a failed MNLF mini-rebellion in Sulu and Zamboanga.  He was soon imprisoned and the MNLF lodged in political limbo for a number of years.  In the process, implementing the 1996 FPA took to the back-burner as the importance of a rival organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rises.  Only when a peace deal with the MILF collapsed in 2008 did the Philippine government turn its attention back to the 1996 FPA.  On the agenda were the same issues—amendment of the organic act creating the regional government and suitable formulas for revenue sharing (especially from minerals)—in previous talks.  While Marvic Leonen, the chief peace negotiator of the government of President Benigno Aquino III vowed that GPH-MNLF talks will be finalized during Aquino’s term, it remains to be seen if that will come to pass. 

A Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was recently signed this month to serve as basis for subsequent negotiations between the two parties.  Already, the said agreement drew complaints from the leader of the rival Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)  Misuari who warned there will be violence if his group was ignored in the accord’s finalization.  To put things in perspective, this blog post examines the peace process between the government and the MNLF.   It focuses on the implementation of the Final Peace Agreement signed by both sides on September 2, 1996.

It is asserted that the imbalance of power against the MNLF forced it to make concession after concession to the Philippine government since the 1976 Tripoli Agreement brokered by Libya’s Moummar Qaddafi.  Ultimately, the political strength of an insurgent group is a function of its military strength.  It cannot win in the negotiating table what it cannot gain in the battlefields.  In the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the MNLF settled for autonomy in the Southern Philippines and gave up its original goal of establishing a separate Bangsamoro state. Rubbing salt on open wounds, Marcos duplicitously established two regional governments which excluded three provinces named in the Tripoli Agreement.

Libya’s Qaddafi

After Marcos fell, the MNLF agreed to a ceasefire in 1986 with government troops without getting anything substantial from government.   Faced with the popularity of President Corazon Aquino, it protested but had to accept a dimunitive autonomous regional government in 1989-90.  The MNLF signed a final peace agreement (FPA) with the Philippine government in September 1996.  A clinical analysis of the FPA indicates that it was a one-sided agreement against the MNLF, reflective of the asymmetry of power against the MNLF.  However, the FPA was deemed a success given the absence of large-scale armed conflict, the incorporation of Misuari and other top MNLF leaders into the autonomous regional government and the integration of MNLF fighters into the government’s armed services.

After Misuari churlishly launched a mini-rebellion in 2001, the MNLF got divided into factions and Misuari’s MNLF faction went into political limbo as he was imprisoned.  His political fortunes got revived when a peace deal between the government and the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fell through.  Misuari was released and talks on the final implementation of the 1996 FPA were initiated by the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles vowed that these implementation talks will be completed within the term of President Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016).  With the unchanged relative inferiority of the MNLF vis-à-vis government, it remains to be seen what gains it could get from these talks.  And now, the MILF seems to be the flavor of the month. The political challenge for the MNLF and Misuari is to complete its own talks with government without the use of threatening language or acts.

August 21 is a most significant day in Philippine political history.

Exactly forty one years ago, the proclamation rally (otherwise called miting de abanse) of the opposition Liberal Party in Plaza Miranda in the center of Manila was bombed with two grenades.  Fortunately, one of the grenades was a dud and nine people including a girl and Manila Times photographer Ben Roxas died and 95 were injured.  I remember a photo of the dying Roxas published the day after staring right into the camera–dazed but seemingly not in pain.  Almost all the Liberal Party’s candidates for senator and local posts in Manila were severely wounded.

Photo-montage of Plaza Miranda bombing

President Ferdinand Marcos responded to the bombing by suspending the writ of habeas corpus through Proclamation No. 889, later amended by Proclamation No. 889-A  supposedly to align the suspension with the bill of rights provision of the Constitution.  He promptly blamed the communists for the bombing and justified the writ suspension as necessary to restore peace and order.

While Marcos was the usual suspect for the Plaza Miranda bombing, several personalities including former Senator Jovito Salonga (who was seriously injured during the rally) began to believe that the communists were responsible.  Victor Corpus, the army lieutenant who carted arms from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and joined the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) in 1970, wrote in his book Silent War he was present when top communist leaders including Jose Ma. Sison, plotted the bombing.  Sison argued the bombing will be a win-win for the communists: Marcos will be put on the defensive, the ruling class will be split, and the revolutionary cause could thus advance.   Corpus will repeat this same allegation in an interview with veteran Filipino journalist Max Soliven. Sison and his followers have repeatedly denied these allegations.

Aquino in white being carried by soldiers on the airport tarmac; the other body is that of alleged gunman Rolando Galman (from Times Journal)

Ninoy Aquino in his prime

Exactly twenty nine years ago–Benigno Aquino Jr–the man believed by many to most likely have been the President of the Philippines if Marcos did not declare martial law in September 1972 was assassinated in the Manila International Airport minutes after his plane landed.  The alleged gunman, Rolando Galman, was killed by government troops supposedly after he killed Ninoy Aquino.  Marcos again blamed the communists for Aquino’s murder and alleged that Galman was acting under their orders.

In both occasions, Marcos’ accusations against the communists were not believed.  Most thought that he ordered both the bombing of the Liberal Party proclamation rally and the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.  The logic behind the belief?  The physical elimination of the Liberal Party leadership would redound to his ruling party’s benefit.  The writ’s suspension was seen as a cover-up for the Plaza Miranda bombing.  The death of Ninoy removes the strongest opposition figure that could threaten Marcos’ lifetime rule.

Marcos and Ninoy, fraternity brothers, in happier times (from MLQ3)

The ebullient Ninoy chatting with fellow passengers in that fateful China Airlines flight

Everybody from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the communists were being blamed for Ninoy’s death.  His death likewise spawned a fever of jokes.  One of the most popular run like this:

Ninoy: Hindi ka nag-iisa (Ninoy, you’re not alone!)

Marcos: Naka-isa ka! (Marcos, you put one over all of us!)

Galman:  Naisahan ka! (Galman, you’ve been had!)

Still another:  Use Galman briefs! It will bring out the killer in you.

Ninoy’s body loaded into a military van

Ninoy led by soldier out of plane (from Facebook account of Boom Enriquez)

Kidding aside, Ninoy’s assassination was the game-changer in the political struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.  Prior to August 21, 1983, the opposition to the regime was born  by armed rebels–communists and Muslim secessionists.  The legal opposition got scattered when Marcos closed the legislature, arrested and imprisoned many, and sent scores to exile.  Some of them dabbled in violence through the Light-a-Fire and April 6 Liberation movements.

However, Ninoy’s death emboldened hitherto inert social forces such as the middle class, businessmen, professionals, clergy and like  to express their strong opposition to the authoritarian regime.   On a sustained basis.  Until February 1986 when Marcos and his immediate coterie left for Hawaii.

The armed opposition did not figure well in this end game against Marcos.  They lost what business theorists and military strategists call the ‘first mover advantage’.  The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) absorbed the brunt of Marcos’ military offensives as it fought conventional warfare in the early going.  In 1977, it signed a peace agreement with Marcos only to be outwitted by the latter in the agreement’s (non)implementation.  The MNLF resumed its military struggle but was soon weakened by a split that produced the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  The communists were sidelined when they decided to boycott the ‘snap elections’ that pitted Marcos against Ninoy’s widow, Cory Cojuangco Aquino.  EDSA 1986 was a sea of yellow–the color associated with Cory and the moderate political forces.  A lot of communists and radicals were also there; however, they could not unfurl their red banners.

Of course, the picture was not a black-and-white one.  The radicals joined the newly enervated political forces from the middle class in regular protests against Marcos.  The rallying cry was: Justice for (Ninoy) Aquino, Justice for All!  They parted ways in the 1984 parliamentary elections: Cory and her allies decided to participate and won a significant number of seats while the radicals predictably boycotted.

By 1985, the trajectory was quite clear.  The strength of the moderates had grown so much.  As a result, they spurned a coalition, BAYAN, with the radicals.  They formed their own group, BANDILA.

EDSA 1986 actually started with a failed military coup led by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) led by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and his protege, Colonel Gregorio Honasan.  It soon morphed into a peaceful uprising as Jaime Cardinal Sin called on the faithful to gather en masse to protect the rebel soldiers from the loyalists.  The failure of the military coup contemplated for early 1986 and the communist boycott of the snap elections allowed non-violent forces to claim victory against Marcos in February 1986. The key figure here was the martyred Aquino – likened to the national hero, José Rizal (1861-96), or even to Jesus Christ. Neither the dictatorship nor the insurgents and the military rebels had any equivalent.

Unmadeup Ninoy in his coffin

Ninoy’s bloodied and bruised remains in an open coffin were visited by hundreds of thousands at the Santo Domingo Church.  When he was finally laid to rest in Paranaque City, the funeral march took some 11 hours to reach its final destination.  The historic event was practically ignored by the regime-controlled mass media.  I remember that the Philippine Daily Express (derisively called the Daily Suppress) chose to report the death by lightning of a person who was watching the funeral procession.

Elsewhere in Luzon, the other victim–Rolando Galman–was mourned and buried without much ado by his relatives and friends.

C’est la vie?

C’est la guerre?

Secretary Jesse Robredo

Meanwhile, this morning today, the death of Interior Secretary and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Good Governance Jesse Robredo was announced after his body was recovered in the waters off Masbate island.  The reader is enjoined to a say a prayer for this quiet and good man and public servant.

The big question

Thursday night last week, as parts of the country were still reeling from the strong winds and rains unleashed by the tropical storm Kabayan, President Noynoy Aquino left the country and flew unannounced to Japan to meet with Murad Ebrahim, chair of of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in a hotel near the Narita airport.

President Aquino meet with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim in a hotel near Narita Airport (courtesy of Philippine Daily Inquirer)

The MILF is one of two armed organizations of the Bangsa Moro people in southern Philippines.  The other one, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), has concluded its final peace agreement (FPA) with the Philippine government in 1996.  Irritants continue to sour relations and both government and MNLF are negotiating an implementing accord of the 1996 FPA.

MILF fighters

Meanwhile, the government and the MILF got a fresh start after the 2008 debacle where the Philippine Supreme Court adjudged the framework agreement as unconstitutional.

Teresita Quintos-Deles, the presidential peace adviser who was with Noynoy in Tokyo, said Murad and Aquino discussed ways to push the peace process forward.

An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the meeting was meant to give the peace talks “a shot in the arm” and show support from the “highest level.”

It appears that President Aquino had sought the meeting, which have been in the works since late June since he wanted to fast-track the peace negotiations and the implementation of peace agreements with the Muslim insurgencies.

Was it necessary and proper for the President to meet with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim?

One of the President’s closest allies, Senator Francis Escudero, opined that the President may be ill-advised to meet personally with Murad.  It would have been sufficient for Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles to talk to Murad.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman curiously observed that President Noynoy’s secret trip to Japan was a violation of the promise of full transparency.

I tend to agree with those who believe that the wisdom of the President’s move cannot be fully determined just yet.

If it will help lead to a durable peace between the government and the MILF, then his Narita gamble will have paid off.