Archive for the ‘Moro National 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.

References

Abat, Fortunato. 1993. The Day We Nearly Lost Mindanao: The CENCOM Story. San Juan Manila: Fortunato U. Abat FCA, Inc.

Abinales, Patricio. 2010. Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Ahmad, Aijaz. 1981. “The War Against the Muslims.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 21-37.

Alcala-Hall, Rosalie. 2009. “From Rebels to Soldiers: An Analysis of the Philippine and East Timorese Policy Integrating Former Moro National Liberation Front and Falintil Combatants into the Armed Forces.”  Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Toronto, Canada.

Che Man, W. K. 1990. Muslim Separatism: The Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Depayso, Yerson (Col.). 2004. “An Assessment of the MNLF Integration Program.” Master’s thesis in National Security Administration, National Defense College of the Philippines.

Fearon, James D. 2004. “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer than Others?” Journal of Peace Research 41(3): 275-301.

Ferrer, Miriam. 2000. “Integration of MNLF Forces into the PNP and AFP: Integration without Demobilization and Disarmament.” UP Project on Assessment of the Implementation of the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement, Phase I. UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies.

George, T. J. S. 1980. Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in Philippine Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

GRP-MNLF. 1987. Joint Statements of the Philippine Government and the MNLF Panels (Jeddah Accord). United States Institute of Peace < https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ucd.ie%2Fibis%2Ffilestore%2FJeddah%25201987.pdf> 10 January 2012.

Gutierrez, Eric and Marites Vitug. 1999. “ARMM After the Peace Agreement: An Assessment of Local Government Capability in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp.181-221.

Gutierrez, Eric. 1999. “The Problems of Peace.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 223-261.

Human Development Network. 2005. Philippine Human Development Report. Manila: Human Development Network.

Iribani, Abraham. 2006. Give Peace a Chance: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Talks. Mandaluyong City: Magbassa Kita Foundation.

Jacildo, Nerlyne C. 2003. “Experiences of MNLF Integrees in Basilan and Zamboanga: Issues and

Problems”. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of the Philippines- Diliman. Quezon City.

Jubair, Salah. 1999. Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny. Kuala Lumpur: IQ Marin Sdn Bhd.

Lara, Francisco Jr. 2010. “Collision and collusion in Muslim Mindanao.” Autonomy and Peace Review 6(1): 84-88.

Majul, Cesar Adib. 1985. The Contemporary Muslim Movement in the Philippines. Berkeley: Mizan Press.

Makinano, Merliza and Alfredo Lubang. 2000. “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration: The Mindanao Experience.” In South Asia at Gunpoint: Small Arms & Light Weapons Proliferation. Ed. Dipankar Banerjee. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

McKenna, Thomas. 1998. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines.  Manila: Anvil Publishing , Inc.

Misuari, Nur. 1974. “The Manifesto of the Moro National Liberation Front: Establishment of the Bangsa Moro Republik”. 28 April.

Noble, Lela. 1976. “The Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines.” Pacific Affairs 49(3): 405-424.

Noble, Leal. 1981. “Muslim Separatism in the Philippines, 1972-1981: The Making of a Stalemate.” Asian Survey 21(11): 1097-1114.

Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). 2006. “Report of the Secretary General on the Question of Muslims in Southern Philippines.” OIC/33-ICFM/2005/MM/SG/REP.2). In Reports of the Secretary General on Muslim Minorities and Communities in Non-OIC Member States. Submitted to the 33rd Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers, Baku, 19-21 June.

Ramos, Fidel V. 1996. Break Not the Peace: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Negotiations, 1992-1996. Manila: Friends of Steady Eddie.

Rocamora, Joel. 1999. “Dissidence and Development: Perspectives for a Tri-People Approach.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 163-179.

Rodil, B. R. 2000. Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process. Davao City: Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao.

Santos, Soliman Jr. (2010a). “War and Peace on the Moro Front: Three Standard Bearers, Three Forms of Struggle, Three Tracks (Overview).” In Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines. Ed. Diana Rodriguez. Geneva: Small Arms Survey/South-South Network for Non-State  Armed Group Engagement, pp. 58-90.

Santos, Soliman Jr. (2010b). “MNLF Integration into the AFP and the PNP: Successful Cooptation or Failed Transformation.” In Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines. Ed. Diana Rodriguez. Geneva: Small Arms Survey/South-South Network for Non-State  Armed Group Engagement, pp. 162-184.

Stedman, Stephen, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth Cousens. 2002. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Lynne Reinner Publishers.

Vitug, Marites and Glenda Gloria. 2000. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs and Institute for Popular Democracy.

Weiner, Myron. 1978. Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[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.


Logo of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

What may be prove to be satisfactory to a rebel side, especially in the early aftermath of a peace deal, may be less than what is provided by the letter of the same deal.  However, such acceptance sets a path dependent trajectory for both sides.  For the rebel, it may reinforce the earlier tendency to accept less since (returning to) fighting is more costly.  For the government side, it will have no incentive to give more than what satisfies the rebel. The ARMM did not flow from the 1996 FPA but Misuari accepted it and even became ARMM chairman.  The regional government appeared to be the best gain of the MNLF from the 1996 FPA.  Only upon later reflection will dissatisfaction over the ARMM be expressed by Misuari and his closest men.

This pattern will be evident in the concessions the MNLF will make to the Philippine government so the 1996 FPA can be inked.      

  1. In the Cipanas interim agreement (reached in Cipanas, Indonesia in 1993 prior to the first formal talks), which outlined the modalities for the “transitional implementing structure and mechanism” (Iribani, 2006, p. 141) in the Southern Philippines, both the MNLF and the Philippine government agreed to follow the 1976 Tripoli Agreement in “spirit and letter”.  However, they parted ways on how to interpret the key provisions (Gonzalez 2011). The Tripoli Agreement gave the MNLF control over the transitional structure—a provisional government should be installed immediately after a peace deal is forged—but also stipulated “constitutional process” to put it in place.  To the MNLF leadership, the “constitutional process” should be construed as a means and not as a condition towards the implementation of the agreement (Iribani, 2006). However, a memo of Ramos to the GRP panel during the first formal talks in 1993 instructed the Philippine negotiators to use the Tripoli Agreement as a starting point only, on the ground that it provided for rights and obligations which were not self-implementing (Ramos, 1996).  For Misuari, the 1976 Tripoli Agreement was a binding international agreement, which took precedence over any domestic law, including the Philippine constitution (Iribani, 2006).  Hence, the provisional government must be handed over to the MNLF right away after the peace deal.  But the Philippine government took the position that an organic act, Republic Act 6734, which created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao during the Aquino administration (over the objections of the MNLF) cannot just be set aside (Iribani, 2006).  Ramos himself indicated the government stand: Repealing RA 6734 would be the first step in the order of constitutional processes envisaged by the government. Besides, a provisional government would need its own set of laws, policies, rules and regulations.  Since the Organic Act provided the means for its own amendment, the provisional government could flow out of RA 6734 itself. The recommendations of both MNLF and GRP panels in plenary negotiations could be the bases for amendments (Ramos, 1996).  As things turned out, RA 6734 was amended by RA 9054 in 2001.  RA 9054 expanded the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) but did not create a provisional government.  It was most likely that the MNLF had to make this concession given its relative weakness vis-à-vis the Philippine government.
  2. The MNLF acceded to the plea of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to downgrade its political goal to autonomy instead of full independence (Gonzalez 2011).  This concession is not a new one; it was granted in Tripoli in 1976.
  3. Misuari agreed to run as governor of ARMM.  This was obviously a sign of being coopted by the government considering his earlier position for a provisional government instead of the ARMM.  Of course, this could always be considered as political side payments that make an agreement.  Nonetheless, after he was no longer ARMM governor in 2001, Misuari returned to his diatribes against the ARMM.  To many, his complaints about the regional government will ring hollow. The MNLF’s inability to hold out to the blandishments of President Ramos was politically costly. As Iribani (2006) rightly argued, the candidacy of Misuari diminished whatever political leverage the MNLF had, if there was any, in the remaining unresolved issues, whose settlement in favor of the Philippine government became a foregone conclusion. There were fewer concessions by the GRP panel afterwards (e.g., an increase from 1,000 to 1500 of MNLF forces to join PNP, a far cry from 20,000 proposal.

Professor Ed Gonzales

University of the Philippines Asian Center professor Ed Gonzales (2011) rightfully argues that in the end, “the peace talks reflected the domination of the government rather than a balance of power between the two parties. Even as the actors appeared to act autonomously (the GRP panel) or seek advice from respected international stakeholders (MNLF → OIC), it was the central government which crucially controlled the material environment of resources, structures, incentives and rewards”.

 Success of peace agreements and peace implementation

MNLF fighters

 

Peter Wallensteen

Margareta Sollenberg

In truth, negotiations to end wars are never simple. In this sense, the negotiations between the MNLF and the Philippine government are not unique.  Negotiations involve compromises, consensus-building and some level of mutual trust.  Often parties negotiate because they recognize the gains that can be made, but even “interest-based” negotiations require enemies to trust each other.  For people affected by violence, or those who have fought for a cause, accepting, or even just recognizing an opponent’s demands is difficult.  But for peace to take root, negotiations are necessary.  As settlements are reached on key issues, the bases of peace are reinforced.  In many instances the decisions reached at the peace table set the course for the socio-economic and political transformation of a country. Negotiated agreements are in effect a blueprint for the future. A peace agreement is defined by Peter Wallensteen and Margareta Sollenberg as an arrangement “entered into by warring parties to explicitly regulate or resolve their basic incompatibility” (quoted in Stedman et al. 2002, 23).

Stedman et al. (2002) call the process of carrying out a particular

Stephen Stedman

peace agreement as “peace implementation”.  They also measure success of the peace agreement through the cessation of violence and the end of the war “on a self-enforcing basis” i.e., when third parties exit, the peace endures.  The evaluation criteria cannot be very strict to include such desirables as “the amelioration of root causes of conflict, and the promotion of justice, positive peace, harmony, and reconciliation of enemies” (Stedman et al. 2002, 2).  The earlier understanding of those who study internal conflicts and peace agreements was that they were basically the same.  However, if the problem is undifferentiated, then prescriptions for resolution will tend to be open-ended.  The importance of international actors (e.g. honest brokers and funders for amelioration programs) is uniformly stressed “with a resulting danger of tautology: if international actors are willing to do all it takes to make peace, then peace will be made” (Stedman et al. 2002, 4).

Some on the Bangsamoro (and MNLF) side may conflate the success of the peace agreement (i.e. cessation of hostilities on a self-enforcing basis) with the ‘big’ desirables as “the amelioration of root causes of conflict, and the promotion of justice, positive peace, harmony, and reconciliation of enemies”.  At times, this is reduced to bean-counting: accounting for the money transferred by the central government to the Muslim regional government. This is understandable since the big desirables were the reasons why they fought government in the first place.  However, it is still necessary to stress that it will take time, resolve, hard work, and resources for the big desirables to be achieved.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the failure to implement peace agreements in civil wars: security dilemmas of the warring parties; inadequate international involvement; the presence of spoilers, whose commitment to peace is only tactical; vague, incomplete, or expedient peace agreements; and the lack of coordination among implementing agencies (Stedman et al 2002).  The security dilemma of the combatants is supposed to be resolved by honest brokers and other third parties that may help in the implementation of peace agreements.  If international involvement is inadequate, not only is the security dilemma unresolved.  Resources to implement the peace agreement may prove to be inadequate.  The negative impact of spoilers on the peace agreement need not be explained further.  However, if the combatants themselves settled for incomplete or expedient agreements, these sins of omission will stymie them in the future and will most likely require a new round of negotiations—that is, if they have not resumed fighting.  Implementing a peace agreement does not only involve the combatants. It also includes honest brokers, donor governments and international bodies like the United Nations.  Thus, all of these actors must coordinate with each other in the implementation of the peace agreement.


Three agreements were inked between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation—the 1976 Tripoli Agreement; the 1987 Jeddah Accord; and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement.

MNLF architects of the Tripoli Agreement

The Tripoli Agreement was reached on December 23, 1976 with the participation of the Quadripartite Ministerial Commission Members of the Islamic Conference and the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).  Its key provisions include the establishment of an autonomous region in the Southern Philippines “within the realm of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines” (Tripoli Agreement, para. 1).  The region shall comprise the following thirteen (13) provinces: Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, North Cotabato; Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, and Palawan; and all the cities and villages situated in abovementioned areas (Tripoli Agreement, para. 2).  The Tripoli Agreement also provided for shari’a law courts (Tripoli Agreement, para. 3.3) and special regional security forces (Tripoli Agreement, para. 3.8).

The Tripoli Agreement marked a downgrading of the MNLF’s over-all objective from independence to regional autonomy.  The failure a year later of negotiations on the agreement’s implementation led to frustration, major disagreements, and an eventual split within the organization. In truth, the Marcos government outmaneuvered the MNLF by issuing proclamations in March 1977 creating two regional governments, reducing by three the 13 provinces covered by the Tripoli Agreement, and subjecting the new arrangement to a plebiscite in April 1977 (HDN 2005).   Santos (2010a) reports that when the talks collapsed, MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari wanted to revert to an armed struggle for independence while his vice-chairman, Salamat Hashim, favored pursuing the peace talks to gain autonomy under the Tripoli Agreement.  Hashim eventually led a break-away group in 1977 which got constituted as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1984.  The MNLF, meanwhile, continued its armed struggle during the remainder of the Marcos regime.

Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat

The MILF gained strength while the MNLF lost strength and sustained further fragmentation.  In 1982, the Maranao-based MNLF Reformist Group led by Dimas Pundato emerged.  Pundato and his associates were eventually coopted into the government Office of Muslim Affairs (Santos 2010a).  The MNLF however did not lose its diplomatic status among the Islamic states. Nonetheless, the ouster of the dictator Marcos and the assumption by Corazon Aquino of the presidency in 1986 led to a ceasefire and the Jeddah Accord of January 3, 1987, which deviated from the Tripoli Agreement by entertaining an MNLF proposal to grant full autonomy to 23 provinces in Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Palawan ‘subject to democratic processes’ (GRP-MNLF 1987).  The colatilla was understood to mean a plebiscite participated in by all Filipinos of voting age in the said 23 provinces.  And if the plebiscite was held at that date, this would mean certain defeat for MNLF aspirations for the 23 provinces.

The relevant passages from the 1987 Jeddah Accord are reproduced below.  The second paragraph illustrates the validity of the MNLF proposal to suspend pertinent provisions of the draft constitution in the scheduled plebiscite.  The failure of President Aquino to issue the appropriate executive order was more an effort to get the Constitution ratified as soon as possible to consolidate her administration’s political position against military rebels rather than a rebuff of the MNLF.

The two panels agreed to continue discussion of the proposal for the grant of full autonomy to Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan subject to democratic processes.

In the meantime, the MNLF panel proposed that President Corazon C. Aquino will issue an executive order suspending pertinent provisions of the draft constitution on the grant of autonomy to Muslim Mindanao in the scheduled plebiscite on February 2, 1987, to allow the MNLF to undertake democratic consultations with the people of Mindanao and its islands, and that the Philippine Government panel shall present this proposal to President Aquino for her approval (GRP-MNLF 1987).

The post-Marcos Constitution was ratified in February 1987 and provided for an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) ‘within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines’ (Article X, Sections 15-21).  The MNLF rejected this new approach as violative of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and unsuccessfully called for the suspension of the plebiscite.  When the plebiscite was held in 1989, only four of the 13 provinces—Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi—voted to join the ARMM.  It was a diminutive regional autonomous government.

President Fidel ramos

A new round of peace negotiations, brokered by Indonesia, between the MNLF and the GRP was undertaken during the administration of President Fidel Ramos resulting in the Jakarta Accord of September 2, 1996, or the so-called Final Peace Agreement (FPA).  Ramos was described as a president who wanted to resolve all internal conflicts so he can attend to the more important agenda of making the Philippines a newly-industrializing country (NIC) (Vitug and Gloria 2000).  He actually managed to make peace with the MNLF and the military rebels.  However, he failed to win over the MILF and the communist insurgents.

The FPA was supposed to be an agreement to implement the 1976 Tripoli Agreement.  However, it again fell short of the full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement.  Instead of the provisional government that the MNLF had pushed for—which the Philippine government could not accommodate under the 1987 charter—it proposed a transitional implementing structure to be introduced in two phases.  Phase 1 consisted of a three-year extendible transitional Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) under the Office of the President, to give the MNLF the necessary exposure and experience over a now 14-province Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD).  Phase 1 also included the integration of MNLF fighters into the AFP and PNP (FPA 1996, I.1).  Phase 2 involved the crafting of a new organic act for the ARMM and the provision of a plebiscite in the affected areas to determine the extent of the (new) autonomous region.

However, President Ramos did not only rely on the formal parameters of the 1996 FPA.  He offered an alliance between the MNLF and the ruling party to give the former control over the existing ARMM. Eventually, Misuari run unopposed got elected as the first regional governor of the ARMM in 1996, barely a week after the FPA was signed. He also became SPCPD chairman.  A regional assembly was also elected with 121 members, the majority of whom were affiliated with the MNLF (Gonzalez 2011).

ARMM Governor Parouk Hussin

The group was at the helm of the regional government of the ARMM for two consecutive terms, from 1996 to 2005.  After Misuari was removed, Alvarez Isnaji served as OIC governor in 2001.  Parouk Hussin, MNLF foreign minister, followed for a full three year term from 2002 to 2005.  Some MNLF leaders have successfully run for local government positions.  They include Muslimin Sema who became mayor of Cotabato City.  However, sooner rather than later, some found it harder to run a government than to rebel against it.


MNLF fighters on patrol

The war between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started in 1972 and officially ended in 1996 for a total of twenty four (24) years.  After the signing of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA), some MNLF soldiers would on occasion clash with government troops with up to a hundred casualties.  What accounts for the duration of that war between the Philippine government and the MNLF?  According to Fearon (2004), five factors are shown to be strongly related to civil war duration. Civil wars emerging from coups or revolutions tend to be short. Civil wars in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Unionhavealso tended to be relatively brief, as have anti-colonial wars. By contrast, ‘sons of the soil’ wars that typically involve land conflict between a peripheral ethnic minority and state-supported migrants of a dominant ethnic group are on average quite long-lived. So are conflicts in which a rebel group derives major funding from contraband such as opium, diamonds, or coca.

The conflict between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine government is a ‘son of the soil’ war that seemed to be quite intractable.  In a ‘sons of the soil war’, the state is dominated and often named (i.e., Philippines) for a majority ethnic group, in this case, Christian Filipinos, whose members face population pressure in their traditional farming areas. As a result, many migrate into less populous and less developed peripheral regions of the country, often with  the support of state development projects. The peripheral regions are inhabited by ethnicminorities – the ‘sons of the soil’ (Weiner 1978) – who take up arms and support  insurgencies against the  migrants and the state backing them.

Peripheral insurgencies (i.e. rural guerrilla warfare) (and coups) are both violent strategies to take power. According to James Fearon of Stanford University, the leaders of would-be coups  and  popular insurrections hope that a rapid strike or public protest will initiate  a  tipping  process that  produces wholesale defections within the regime (especially the  military) or  mass demonstrations in the capital that have the same effect. This technology, a tipping process, is basically all or nothing.   Either the coup leaders succeed or they are crushed when the hoped-for change in the balance of forces fails to develop. This is why civil wars that originate in coups or popular revolutions tend to be quite brief.

James Fearon of Stanford University

Meanwhile, Fearon pointed out that the strategy of peripheral insurgencies is radically different.  Recognizing their relative military inferiority, rebel leaders rarely expect to win quickly by means of a tipping process that causes the government to collapse.  Instead, peripheral insurgencies are wars in the sense that the parties hope to prevail in one of two general ways: either by gaining a position of military dominance that allows the imposition of terms, or by using violence to inflict costs that will induce the other side to negotiate a favorable settlement.  The longer duration of insurgencies versus coups and revolutions is thus a function of rebel strategy.

Fearon (2004) concludes that when the state is controlled by a majority ethnic group whose members include large numbers of impoverished, land-poor farmers,  the government has an enduring interest in favoring migration to less populated peripheral areas. Even if the center has incentives to cut regional autonomy deals to reduce costly fighting with minority guerillas, both sides know that the center will soon face strong political pressures to renege on behalf of migrants. Likewise, if significant natural resource or contraband rents are available in the region, this increases the incentive to hold the peripheral areas, thus making a negotiated settlement more difficult to construct.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), formed in 1968, was (for a time) the standard bearer of the (armed) struggle of the putative Bangsa Moro people aimed at establishing a distinct nation-state independent of the Republic of the Philippines.  The MNLF was organized and led by a secularly-educated Tausug commoner, Nurallaji Misuari, to serve as an intrument for the liberation of the Bangsa Moro “from the terror, oppression and tyranny of Filipino colonialism” and “to secure a free and independent state for the Bangsa Moro people” (Misuari 1974).  The group bore the brunt of the armed resistance in Muslim Mindanao against the Philippine government when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the 1972 (Noble 1976; 1981).  Not only did it gain armed strength to deny victory to the Philippine government in the battlefields (Abat 1993).  It also attracted the sympathy and support of many Islamic states which in turn pressured the Philippine government to talk peace with the Muslim insurgents.

Misuari’s stock as MNLF supreme leader obviously rose as the organization’s visibility and recognition within the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) grew.  According to Gonzalez (2011)[1], the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 guaranteed the international status of the Bangsamoro movement and its formal links to the OIC countries. However, more rewards were coming. In 1977, the MNLF was accepted during the 8th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM) in Tripoli, Libya as an observer. During the 15th ICFM in Sana’a, Yemen in 1984, its status graduated from mere ‘legitimate representative” to “sole legitimate representative” of the Bangsamoro people (Iribani 2006, pp. 38-39). In the 9th ICFM in Dakar, Senegal, held in April 1978, the MNLF was recognized as the legitimate representative of Muslims in Southern Philippines (Iribani 2006).

Santos (2010a: 63) notes that “through armed struggle, Islamic diplomacy, and peace negotiations, the group was the main vehicle for placing the Moro cause on the national and international agendas.”  However, the MNLF will eventually lose its standard-bearer status to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group which left the MNLF in 1977.   The civil war between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started in 1972 and was a protracted one.  The MNLF’s armed struggle against the government is a well-documented story (Abat 1993; Ahmad 1981; Che Man 1990; George 1980; Jubair 1999; Majul 1985; McKenna 1998; Noble 1976 and 1981; Vitug and Gloria 2000).  The history of peace negotiations is also documented but not as well as the armed conflict (Iribani 2006, Ramos 1996, and Rodil 2000).  Peace agreements were signed in 1976 (Tripoli Agreement) and in 1987 (Jeddah Accord) but peace did not hold.  The third peace agreement, called the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) appeared satisfactory to both sides.

A number of sympathetic analysts believed that at the core of the Moro question is the politics of identity and differentiation– the assertion that Moros as Muslims constitute a distinct group from the Christian-dominated Philippine nation. From this perspective, the Muslim way of life define who they are as a group, transcending tribal/ethnic loyalties and historically sustained through continued resistance against Western colonization and Christianization (Jubair 1999).   Tan (1993) traces the evolution of the political assertion of Muslim identity among elites in Mindanao. After World War II, segments of the Moro elite, notably professionals and students, continued to agitate for secession despite efforts by the national government to co-opt traditional leaders. In part, this was fueled by what was widely perceived as systemic efforts to marginalize Muslims, notably in the policies encouraging Christian migration and the opening up of Mindanao to foreign investments.

From traditional leaders like Datu Udtug Matalam, the articulation of Moro identity shifted to Nur Misuari who brought the demand for independence to a level of armed struggle. The conclusion of the Tripoli agreement in 1976 shifted the cause towards autonomy, but the movement also splintered along this axes between the Nur Misuari’s faction, Hashim Salamat’s  MILF (whose goal to create a governance structure founded on Islamic principles contrasts with Misuari’s more secular and inclusive version) and the MNLF Reformists of Dimas Pundato[1](Alcala-Hall 2009).

McKenna (1998) explores the articulation of this Muslim identity among the rank-and-file MNLF and the movement’s supporters in the Muslim community. McKenna‘s (1998) subset of current/former MNLF combatants from Cotabato displayed a divergent understanding of the rebellion from those espoused officially by their leaders. They were as likely to cite enmity towards martial law and personal insecurity (having no choice) having compelled them to join the armed movement as the need to defend their Muslim faith. From revolutionary songs made popular among the Muslim masses, he also noted more references to localized space (inged) as homeland rather than the nation (bangsa), and alternative motives in joining the movement (such as to advance social standing). He also noted their rather tolerant attitude towards turncoats or defectors. He argues that the ordinary MNLF rank-and-file and supporters define their Muslim identity in an unself-conscious manner, neither fully buying into the claims of loyalty to their traditional leaders nor to strict religious interpretation by their ulama. This suggested the different relational contexts or power relations within which Muslim identity is deftly articulated, negotiated and asserted (Alcala-Hall 2009).

Abinales (2010) however sees problems and raises questions about consistency, historical accuracy, consistency, and even hypocrisy of this popular narrative of a continuing Bangsamoro struggle since the Spanish colonial era.  He cites among others conflicts between different Muslim groups and the presence of non-Muslim indigenous groups (popularly known as lumads) and wanted to know how these factors impact on Bangsamoro-hood.

(Note: In the next parts of this blog post series, we will examine the peace agreements between the government and the MNLF and their results.)


[1] The MNLF Reformists (Pundato) is one of the factions in the MNLF.  The others include the Alvarez Isnaji wing and Islamic Command Council.  Of course, the MILF started as an MNLF faction in 1977 as a protest to the MNLF’s agreeing to drop the political objective of forming a Bangsamoro state.  It formulated itself as the MILF in 1984.


[1] Eduardo T. Gonzalez, a professor of Philippine studies at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, gave the author permission to cite his draft paper.